In honor of the 200th anniversary of Joseph Smith’s First Vision, I just published a new book on the subject that combines many early accounts and weaves them into a single narrative. From the introduction of the book:
Joseph Smith’s First Vision in 1820 is one of the best attested visions in recorded history. In honor of the 200th anniversary of this sacred event, I’ve carefully reviewed Joseph’s primary, first-person and the contemporary, third-person accounts of this remarkable vision, the story together into a single narrative, attempting to fit the pieces together into completed puzzle.
This book is a sort of translation of historical fragments and part historical fiction, subjectively told but intended to help create a picture of what actually happened. It’s a “based on actual events” retelling that takes as little literary license as possible, though certainly some is taken. I did my best to preserve the original story with great sensitivity as I wove the parts together, seeking to favor the reader’s experience over the critic’s.
I modernized or corrected spelling, added quotation marks, altered some word order and punctuation, dropped some words and phrases in favor of clarity, and added transition words to help with the flow of the story.
I first heard the story of the First Vision from a close friend when I was 17 years old when not yet a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The moment I heard the story, I believed it with all my heart. It filled my soul with fire and set me on a lifelong path of faith and joy. I totter from time to time, but I’m still on the path.
I learned on my journey to baptism that disbelief is based on filling in blanks with assumptions. I call it “closed case” thinking. Real faith, on the other hand, is based on seeking with an open heart and mind. It is “cold case” thinking, a relentless detective’s search, never giving up, never stopping short but searching far and wide and deep for answers. ( See Steven C. Harper’s Joseph Smith’s First Vision: A Guide to the Historical Accounts, chapters 1 and 8 for an inspiring comparison of seeker versus assumer. I highly recommend his book. )
I trust you will find this retelling of the First Vision worthy of your consideration. When I meet Joseph again and he beats me soundly at stick pull, should he beat me over the head with that stick for being so audacious to publish a book like this, I’ll take my lumps and love him still.
I first learned about the Prophet Joseph Smith when I was 17 years old. Until that time, I’d heard nothing about him until by chance I read his testimony in a missionary edition of the Book of Mormon. Those few paragraphs left a powerful impression on me, but I wasn’t ready to grasp their full meaning until nine months later when I had what I call my pillar of fire experience.
I’d never felt anything like it. It was the most real experience I’d ever had. On that September evening, I was filled with light and hope and peace and a sense of direction for my life, all at the same time. It was the purest, holiest, most redemptive feeling and mental state ever for. It was a spiritual wake up call.
A good friend had testified to me of the divinity of Christ and His restored Church that evening. His words seemed so familiar. They shook me to the core and filled me with a desire to draw closer to Jesus Christ and to learn all I could about the Prophet Joseph, the Book of Mormon, and restored Church of Jesus Christ. I’ve never turned away from that moment. How could I? How could I deny the pure power I experienced?
I’ve been thinking a lot about Joseph this afternoon. He was martyred with his brother Hyrum 175 years ago today, in a jail in Carthage, Illinois. I’ve been in the jail room where he, his brother, and John Taylor were shot. I’ve stood at the window where Joseph fell and died. I experienced the unmistakable pillar of fire there too.
I’ve lived in a home where the Prophet lived with his wife Emma. I’ve walked the very floors he walked, late at night and early in the morning, but never in his shoes. I’ve experienced the pillar of fire there and in 1,000 other ways and on a 1,000 other days.
From the very beginning, I’ve heard mockery and criticism of Joseph. In the beginning, it shocked me. I’d never known anyone to be the object of such bitter accusations. But the contrast of holy fire and bitterness helped me understand that I was onto something very interesting.
Today, Joseph seems to be mocked and derided and denigrated now more than ever. This is no surprise. When he was 17, the angel Moroni appeared to him and gave a prophetic message:
He called me by name, and said unto me that he was a messenger sent from the presence of God to me, and that his name was Moroni; that God had a work for me to do; and that my name should be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues, or that it should be both good and evil spoken of among all people. (Joseph Smith-History 1:33; emphasis added.)
People have the freedom to believe whatever they want to believe. I respect that choice. From my first encounter with Joseph over 40 years ago until now, I’ve chosen to trust God, trust Him to teach me, trust Him to open my eyes, trust Him to lead me by His Holy Spirit. Paul taught that this was the pathway to the “things of God”:
For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but [by] the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural manreceiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he knowthem, because they are spirituallydiscerned. (1 Corinthians 2:11–14; emphasis added.)
As persuasive as the arguments were against Joseph’s story, then and today, I could not and cannot in good conscience turn my back on the Holy Ghost. When I’d experienced fire and light, I wanted to live in that light for the rest of my life, not opposed to that light. I couldn’t bring myself to live a gospel of bitterness.
Satan stirreth them up, that he may lead their souls to destruction. . . . Yea, he stirreth up their hearts to anger against this work. Yea, he saith unto them: Deceive and lie in wait to catch, that ye may destroy; behold, this is no harm. And thus he flattereth them, and telleth them that it is no sin to lie that they may catch a man in a lie, that they may destroy him. (Doctrine and Covenants 10:22, 24, 25.)
I’ve sifted through the rubble and let it fall through my fingers. Some say Joseph was a sinner, a charlatan, a seducer, a miscreant. I’ve looked carefully and prayerfully at the claims against him and the vast array of witnesses in his favor and came to my own conclusion: suspicion is not evidence, evidence is not proof, and “proof” does not tell the whole story. It never does.
The reasoning of earth-bound mind leaves gap, gaps I believe we can only turn to God to fill. I’ve gotten faithful answers to my questions, most of which contradict the world’s views on these matters. I decided at a young age to turn away from the spirit of contention and trust God and His Holy Spirit.
And now, verily, verily, I say unto thee, put your trust in that Spirit which leadeth to do good—yea, to do justly, to walk humbly, to judge righteously; and this is my Spirit. Verily, verily, I say unto you, I will impart unto you of my Spirit, which shall enlighten your mind, which shall fill your soul with joy; and then shall ye know, or by this shall you know, all things whatsoever you desire of me, which are pertaining unto things of righteousness, in faith believing in me that you shall receive. (Doctrine and Covenants 11:12–14; see also Micah 6:8.)
I’ve done my best to trust God’s promises, weak and beggarly though I am. I trust His words and His ways, and this is what I’ve come to know: Joseph Smith was a latter-day witness of Jesus Christ and a friend of God. Let men and devils rail against him and his legacy. Here I stand, and by God’s grace, here I remain.
Then . . . the Lord hearkened . . . and a book of remembrance was written before him for them that feared the Lord, and that thought upon his name. And they shall be mine, saith the Lord of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels. . . . Then shall ye return, and discern between the righteous and the wicked, between him that serveth God and him that serveth him not. (Malachi 3:16–18.)