At the end of the October 2019 Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, President Russell M. Nelson announced that 2020 will be designated a bicentennial year.
“It will be exactly 200 years since Joseph Smith experienced the theophany that we know as the First Vision,” Nelson said in his conference conclusion.
According to the LDS Church topics page, “The First Vision was a transcendent vision that occurred in the spring of 1820, in which Joseph Smith saw and conversed with God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ. The First Vision is of preeminent importance and marked the opening of the final chapter in the history of mankind before the second coming of Christ.”
Nelson said he hoped that every member and every family would prepare for a unique April conference that will commemorate the very foundations of the restored gospel.
He encouraged members to study the First Vision and all that followed before the church was officially organized in 1830 and asked them to think how their lives would be different without it.
In the six months since, church departments and many individuals have flooded social media with information on the subject. Everything from symposiums to podcasts and theater productions to videos have given Latter-day Saints and others an opportunity to share their belief in the importance of the bicentennial of the First Vision.
Nelson said this effort and the special conference meetings in April will be a hinge point in the history of the church and in the lives of its members moving forward.
For the church and its members, the First Vision stands as a sacred turning point, rooted in the history of Joseph Smith and his family, that brought about the church’s restoration.
“The First vision was the beginning,” said Richard Bennett, Brigham Young University religion professor, historian and author of School of the Prophet. “It took a while for the church to recognize the importance of the First Vision.”
It was Orson Pratt, member of the Quorum of the Twelve who years after the event made the vision known to the world, according to recorded church history accounts while he was serving a mission for the church.
Orson Pratt served a mission for the church from 1839 to 1841 in the British Isles, mostly in Scotland. In September 1840 while serving in Edinburgh, he published his first missionary tract, “An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions,” it contained the first public recording of the First Vision, the same that was canonized by the church.
“The First Vision didn’t mean a thing until 1838,” said Spencer W. McBride, historian of the Joseph Smith Papers.
“It was Pratt that instigated reclaiming the Vision,” Bennett said. “Joseph F. Smith (church prophet and nephew to Joseph) sited not to forget our history.”
Bennett added, “The first thing to understand is it was a personal revelation. Joseph was reluctant to talk about it with members. Brigham Young rarely talked about the First Vision and emphasized the visitations of angels that came later.”
According to Bennett, the First Vision did not bestow priesthood keys. It did not usher in new prophesy. It was an answer to a faithful question and a preparation for that which was to follow. Joseph Smith was not automatically a prophet.
A modern day prophet, President Gordon B. Hinckley, who served as the church’s president until his death in 2008, marveled at the event of the First Vision.
“To me it is a significant and marvelous thing that in establishing and opening this dispensation our Father did so with a revelation of himself and of his Son Jesus Christ, as if to say to all the world that he was weary of the attempts of men, earnest though these attempts might have been, to define and describe him. … The experience of Joseph Smith in a few moments in the grove on a spring day in 1820, brought more light and knowledge and understanding of the personality and reality and substance of God and his Beloved Son than men had arrived at during centuries of speculation,” Hinckley said.
A heritage of seekers
However, before one can appreciate the full experience of the First Vision and all that followed, it is important to know Joseph Smith and his family, for that is where the story begins.
The church’s second president, Brigham Young, said: “The Lord had his eyes upon [Joseph Smith], and upon his father, and upon his father’s father, and upon their progenitors clear back to … Adam. He has watched that family and that blood as it has circulated from its fountain to the birth of that man. He was foreordained in eternity to preside over this last dispensation.”
Joseph Smith Sr. and his wife Lucy Mack Smith, Joseph Smith’s parents, were from industrious and hard working families. Lucy’s father, Solomon Mack was born Sept. 26, 1735 in Lyme, New London County, Connecticut, according to “The History of Joseph Smith” by his mother Lucy Mack Smith.
“In 1776, I enlisted in the service of my country and was for a considerable length of time in the land forces,” Solomon Mack recorded in his journals and recounting in Lucy Mack Smith’s history of Joseph Smith.
Following the war, Solomon Mack purchased a cargo ship, but was compelled to sell it after it sustained damage. He was left destitute.
In the later part of Solomon Mack’s life he had a conversion that changed the entire rest of his life, according to Bennett.
“After this I determined to follow phantoms no longer, but devote the rest of my life to the service of God and my family,” Solomon Mack recorded.
His daughter, Lucy Mack, was born July 8, 1776 in Gilsum, Cheshire County, New Hampshire. For the most part she had a happy life as a young child until her beloved sister, Lovina died.
According to her journals that have since been published Lucy grieved so much for her sister it preyed upon her health.
“In the midst of this anxiety of mind, I determined to obtain that which I had heard spoken so much of from the pulpit – a change of heart,” Mack wrote.
To that end she moved in with her brother Stephen in Tunbridge, Vermont, and spent much of her time studying the Bible and praying.
She was determined to find the Church of Christ. She did not belong to any church at the time. She said all of the churches were unlike the Church of Christ, as it existed in former days.
Mack recorded briefly in her journal, “While I remained at Tunbridge (Vermont), I became acquainted with a young man by the name of Joseph Smith (Sr.) to whom I was subsequently married.”
The Smith family heritage was not unlike the Mack’s, devoted to Bible teachings and to God.
The prophet Joseph’s third-great-parents were Robert and Mary Smith who came to America from England. Their son Samuel Smith was born Jan. 26, 1666, in Topsfield, Essex County, Massachusetts. He married Rebecca Curtis Jan. 25, 1707, according to the family genealogy as written by Lucy Mack Smith.
They had a son named Samuel born Jan. 26, 1714 and he married Priscilla Gould. Their son Asael, was born March 8, 1744, he married Mary Duty, Feb. 12, 1767.
In Richard Lloyd Anderson’s Joseph Smith’s “New England Heritage,” the author said, “Asael, Joseph Smith Jr.’s grandfather, was elected to many offices during the 30 years he lived in Tunbridge, Vermont, and was known for his community service. He believed in a loving God and in life after death. He also had a testimony of the Savior. Asael predicted that “God was going to raise up some branch of his family to be a great benefit to mankind.”
Their third son was Joseph Smith, born July 12, 1771. He married Lucy Mack on Jan. 24, 1796.
The Smith family farmed in Tunbridge but eventually had to sell their land. After a number of moves and hardships, they settled for a time in Sharon, Windsor County, Vermont. It was there on Dec. 23, 1805 Lucy gave birth to Joseph Smith. Jr.
“About this time my husband’s mind became much excited upon the subject of religion; yet he would not subscribe to any particular system of faith, but contended for the ancient order, as established by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and his Apostles,” Lucy Mack wrote in her journal.
Lucy Mack Smith recorded in her journal on a number of occasions the dreams both she and her husband had concerning their family and their seeking divine guidance to Christ’s church. According to her journal described in the Joseph Smith History by Lucy Mack Smith, Joseph Smith Sr. had more than seven major visions concerning his family, the judgement and religion during the time he was married to Lucy.
Since before Joseph Smith Jr. was born his family was already seeking that which they could not find but continued in hope that one day it would be manifested to them, according to Lucy Mack Smith in her journals. Young Joseph
According to historical documents and information printed at the time, western New York was the place to settle both economically and religiously. According to McBride, nearly 10% of the entire country had migrated there.
“It is understandable church members would see God’s hand in it,” McBride said referring to the mass migration. From the historical nature, the economical and even the weather, it was cause for the surge of people coming to western New York.
The religious excitement and revivals in the area from a number of religious sects was referred to as the Second Great Awakening.
During this time, Joseph Smith was a youngster, going about doing chores for his mother, playing and anticipating becoming a bigger help to his father and his older brothers Alvin and Hyrum.
Because his family could not afford the luxury of public education, Joseph Smith received only three years of formal schooling. Along with his brothers and sisters, he was educated mainly at home from the family Bible, according to LDS Church history.
When Joseph Smith contracted typhus fever at age 7, his life forever changed.
During his recovery, young Smith got an infection in his leg to the bone and the very marrow of it. The story, taught frequently in LDS Church lessons, says that the doctors wanted to amputate his leg, but Lucy Mack Smith wouldn’t have it.
A new procedure was to be used in one last attempt to save the leg. Joseph Smith refused even brandy to relieve the pain of the surgery, which consisted of removing large bone fragments, but instead asked that just his father hold him, according to Lucy Mack Smith.
“Looking at me, he said, ‘Mother, I want you to leave the room for I know you cannot bear to see me suffer so; father can stand it, but you have carried me so much, and watched over me so long, you are almost worn out’,” Lucy Mack recorded her son as saying in her journals.
After several fragments were removed and the surgery completed, Lucy Mack Smith recorded that his recovery started almost immediately.
Joseph Smith was sent with his Uncle Jesse Smith, to be by the seaside where he could breathe in the rejuvenating breezes for his health. It was almost a year of Joseph Smith passing through sickness and distress before he returned to good health, albeit he was still nursing a limp as he walked, according to Lucy Mack Smith’s account of the surgery in her book on the history of Joseph Smith.
“Having passed through about a year of sickness and distress, health again returned to our family, and we most assuredly realized the blessing; and indeed, we felt to acknowledge the hand of God, more in preserving our lives through such a tremendous scene of affliction than if we had, during this time, seen nothing but health and prosperity,” Lucy Mack Smith wrote in the History of Joseph Smith
Joseph’s Great Awakening
By the time Joseph Smith was 12 years old he was seeking an answer to a question that consumed him, others of his family and members of the community; which of all the many denominations was the right church so he might join it.
According to “Sermons of a Palmyra Preacher,” from LDS Church history papers, Joseph Smith listened to many preachers. It is said that Joseph Smith never mentioned the pastor George Lane in his personal histories but Joseph Smith’s brother William Smith remembers.
This remembrance is recorded in Larry C. Porter’s book, “Reverend George Lane.”
“Joseph’s brother, William, remembered Joseph attending a meeting where George Lane addressed the question ‘What church shall I join?’ Using James 1:5 as a text, Reverend Lane urged his listeners ‘to ask God.’ If William’s recollection is correct, Lane’s sermon may have influenced Joseph as he sought direction.”
According to Bennett, “In the heart of these revivals – almost always held in the wintertime in such northern climes as New York when fields lay cold and dormant – ‘anxious meetings’ were held almost every night in churches, schools, barns, or any other place large enough to accommodate yearning audiences of anxious sinners seeking salvation.”
Bennett recorded that the winter of 1820 was bitter cold and even that did not stop the night meetings. During one February meeting, one of the coldest during that winter, those who were unable to obtain admittance raised the windows and listened to the word of God from outside.
Outpourings of the heart to God touched even the youngest of those attending these meetings. It was not unusual for youth to find their own special spot in a grove of trees to pray, according to Bennett.
Bennett adds in his book “School of the Prophet,” that “many are the accounts of youth retiring to their own secret groves to pray. Wrote one Reverend Jesse Braman, a Baptist preacher of an 1818-1819 revival in Ontario country near Palmyra; ‘This part of the wilderness seemed alive for one year. The woods rang with the songs of young converts, and backsliders wept among the trees’.”
Bennett writes from the “Narrative Life of Solomon Mack,” that another unnamed preacher said, “Formerly, the children had been accustomed to resort for their juvenile recreations in the hours of play, to a certain grove, in which was a pond of water. Through the whole last of winter they resorted to the same spot; not to engage in youthful sports, but to implore the mercy of Heaven on themselves and their companions.”
It appears that Joseph Smith’s journey of faith was much the same as others. Bennett however added, “although the results were profoundly different. These wintry revivals were characterized sometimes by argument but also by the ‘solemnities of eternity,’ of the Bible being central to conversion and by similarly-aged young men and women seeking through faith the salvation of their souls.”
Bennett also added, “Whatever else one might say about Joseph’s accounts, his experience was very much part of the revival culture of his time and place, historically credible and defensible.”
Preparing for the grove
For more than 20 years after Joseph Smith had his personal vision in a grove of trees near his home outside Palmyra, New York, he had written or shared a number of accounts of his experience.
Four of the more prominent accounts included one written in the summer of 1832, in his journal of Nov. 9-11 of 1835, an 1838 history and as a part of the March 1, 1842 Wentworth Letter.
The Wentworth Letter was published in the Nauvoo Times and Seasons newspaper. It was at the request of John Wentworth, editor and proprietor of the Chicago Democrat newspaper.
The article included the First Vision account, history and beliefs of the church including the first printing of the Articles of Faith.
It is the 1838 history that has been canonized by the LDS Church and is a part of church scripture known as The Pearl of Great Price.
In the 1838 account, Joseph Smith said there was an “unusual excitement” on the subject of religion and there were great divisions among the people.
Ministers were contending for converts and appeared to be pleased when they joined any church, according to Joseph Smith.
“Yet when the converts began to file off, some to one party and some to another, it was seen that the seemingly good feelings of both the priests and the converts were more pretended than real; for a scene of great confusion and bad feeling ensued. . .,” Joseph Smith said in the 1838 account.
While his father did not join any church, Joseph Smith said that his mother Lucy and his brothers Hyrum and Samuel and his sister Sophronia joined the Presbyterian faith.
Joseph Smith said that during this time of reflection he was attracted to the Methodist faith.
“But so great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was, and so unacquainted with men and things, to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong,” Smith said.
Joseph Smith and his family continued to read the Bible together, according Lucy Mack Smith’s journals. Joseph Smith also made his own time to read and ponder upon scripture.
He read in the Book of James 1:5, “If any of you lack wisdom let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally and upraideth not and It shall be given him.”
Smith said that one passage of scripture entered his heart with great force and that he reflected on it over and over.
Like his peers, Joseph Smith chose a woodland retreat to make an attempt.
Bennett said that the grove of trees where Joseph Smith went to pray was predetermined. That he had already scouted out a place where he would be alone prior to his first private vocal attempt to pray to God.
He had pondered upon the idea for more than just a few minutes or a day, according to Bennett.
Lucy Mack Smith recorded in her history, prior to the First Vision, that at age 14 there was an alarming incident against her son.
“He was out one evening on an errand and on returning home, as he was passing through the door-yard, a gun was fired across his pathway,” Lucy Smith wrote.
The next morning they found tracks from the person and two balls from the gun lodged in the head and neck of a family cow.
The family felt surprised by the attempt on Joseph Smith’s life. It would not be the last.
Having found the spot that he had planned to go to attempt a vocal prayer, Joseph Smith said he looked around and found he was alone and knelt to make the attempt.
“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,” Joseph Smith recorded in the 1838 account of the First Vision.
He said that a thick darkness gathered around him. He couldn’t speak and it felt as if he were “doomed to sudden destruction.”
The account relays that he tried calling out to God and he recorded that was when he felt like this enemy, an actual force and power from the unseen world, would destroy him. It was at that very moment he was freed.
“I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me,” Smith recorded in the 1838 account. “It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound.”
Joseph Smith then recorded, “When the light rested upon me 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.”
Joseph Smith said he got possession of himself and asked which of all the sects was right and which he should join.
“I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and 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 there of.”
Joseph Smith said he was then told to join none of them and was told many other things that he cannot write.
When he gathered his composure, he said he found himself laying on his back, looking up into heaven. He had no strength for a while, but soon recovered enough to get up and walk back to his home.
“I leaned up to the fireplace, mother inquired what the matter was. I replied, ‘Never mind, all is well – I am well enough off.’”
Joseph Smith added, “It seems as though the adversary was aware, at a very early period in my life, that I was destined to prove a disturber and an annoyer of his kingdom; else why should the powers of darkness combine against me? Why the opposition and persecution that arose against me, almost in my infancy.”
Between 1820 and 1830 in his personal life, Joseph Smith grew to manhood, courted and married Emma Hale Smith, the love of his life, Jan. 18, 1827. During their 17-year marriage, they were parents to 11 children, two of whom were adopted. Joseph and Emma Smith’s first three children died within hours of their birth. In 1831, they adopted twins, one of which, a boy, died before reaching his first birthday. Over the next 12 years, Emma gave birth to six more sons, four of whom survived infancy — the youngest was born five months after Joseph Smith’s death, according to church information on the life of Joseph Smith.
Over that decade, Joseph Smith shared his experiences of visitations of angels, including Moroni, whose form is depicted in gold on the top spire of nearly all of the LDS temples around the world.
It was Moroni who, according to Joseph Smith’s records, led him to where the gold plates were kept. Those plates, a history of those who lived on the American Continent, were translated by the power of God, according to Smith and is now known as “The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Christ.”
Subsequently, Joseph Smith recorded visitations from resurrected beings that he and his scribe, Oliver Cowdery, recorded, including John the Baptist who church records state restored the Aaronic Priesthood, with the authority to baptize for the remission of sins. The records state that he was followed sometime later by Peter, James and John, the apostles of Christ, who restored the higher priesthood to act in God’s name on earth, to confirm the gift of the Holy Ghost and to establish Christ’s kingdom once again on the earth, according to Smith.
On April 6, 1830, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was officially established (for a brief time as The Church of Christ), Joseph Smith was sustained as the president, prophet, seer and revelator. It was, as members of the LDS Church believe, the restoration of Christ’s church, with the priesthood authority to act in his name on earth.
According to LDS Church newsroom information, in the mid-1800s, Boston mayor and nationally-known writer and publicist Josiah Quincy wrote: “At some future time the question may be asked, What great American has done more to mold the minds and destiny of his countrymen than any other man upon this continent? Absurd as it may seem to some, it is not improbable that the answer to this question will be, Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet!”
Like Joseph Smith, it is today’s members that Nelson hopes will take a modern journey of faith. As Nelson said, it is their hinge point as the LDS Church continues to grow into the 21st century.
Daily Herald reporter Genelle Pugmire can be contacted at email@example.com, (801) 344-2910, Twitter @gpugmire