As we look at the history of the last seven centuries, it becomes clear that the Reformation, which began after the European Dark Ages, was an open acknowledgment that there had been a general apostasy from traditional Christianity. The man-made churches that sprang up all over Europe during the Reformation were attempts to return to the Christian religion originally established by Jesus Christ. Although the reformers were sincere in their attempts, none of them succeeded in restoring the major features of Christianity, either in doctrine or church organization.
The Catholics clung to the primacy of Peter. The Lutherans pinned their hope to justification by faith and being saved by grace alone. The Episcopalians built their church on the office of bishop. The Presbyterians based their faith on the office of elder. The Baptists focused on the ordinance of baptism by immersion. The Methodists stressed “methodical” Christian living. The Congregationalists formed a “covenant” group to worship and study the gospel under a minister of their choice.
The American Revival in Religion
The early settlers in America had fled from Europe to get away from the stifling environment created by state-sponsored religions and their continual meddling with the political, spiritual and economic lives of the people. Feelings in America were so strong against organized religion that by the close of the Revolutionary War only one out of twenty citizens would acknowledge they were members of any particular church.1
Even before the Revolutionary War there had been many attempts by Jonathan Edwards and others to try to “revive” the spirit of religion among the people. One of the more vocal was the Methodist movement, which sent “circuit riders” throughout the land to hold camp revival meetings and preach in regular Sunday services. Three of Brigham Young’s brothers were Methodist preachers or circuit riders, and Brigham’s sister, Rhoda, married John P. Greene, another Methodist preacher.
By 1815 it was said that “the great mass of the western people [i.e. people on the western frontier] wanted a preacher that could mount a stump, a block, or old log, or stand in the bed of a wagon, and without note or manuscript, quote, expound, and apply the word of God to the hearts and consciences of the people.”2 They did not want the stuffiness of the eastern seaboard churches and their strict, ritualistic services.
Palmyra Is Swept by a Religious Revival
About this time, a religious revival began in Massachusetts and swept throughout New England. By the summer of 1819 it had reached the vicinity of Palmyra, New York. Reverend Jesse Townsend, a young Yale graduate of the Presbyterian faith, was the first to start the revival in Palmyra. As the religious fervor spread throughout the community four members of the Smith family joined the Presbyterian Church, including Mother Smith.3 Reverend Townsend was soon joined in the revival effort by a Baptist minister and two Methodist ministers.4
Although he was young, Joseph Smith observed all of this religious commotion with deep personal interest. He later said:
“My mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness; but though my feelings were deep and often poignant, still I kept myself aloof from all these parties, though I attended their several meetings as often as occasion would permit.”5
Joseph pondered a scripture in James that addressed his burning question: which church should he join? He learned of this scripture while attending a Methodist revival meeting.
In spite of the fact that four members of the family had become Presbyterians, Joseph was beginning to feel more inclined to join the Methodist faith. It was at this point that he heard one of the Methodist ministers preach a very impressive sermon.6 Because many had been touched in their hearts by the recent religious revival, they were wondering which of the many churches they should join. Joseph was equally perplexed. This Methodist minister suggested that they should follow the advice of James:
“If any of you lack wisdom let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not: and it shall be given unto him. But let him ask in faith nothing wavering.”7
This scripture had a great impact on Joseph’s young mind. Without intending to, this Methodist minister had helped to initiate the restoration of the gospel.8 As Joseph later studied this passage and meditated about it, he came to the conclusion that he would do as James had suggested and ask God which church he should join.
The Sacred Grove, where Joseph knelt to offer his first-ever vocal prayer.
Joseph Tries to Pray for an Answer
Scarcely able to sleep that night as he thought about his decision,9 he arose early the next day on a beautiful, clear spring morning. Recent research indicates that the date might have been Sunday, March 26, 1820.10 Joseph’s decision to pray was a major undertaking for this young boy because he said, “I had never as yet made the attempt to pray vocally.”11
He walked to the forested area west of the house, passing through a clearing where he had set his ax in a tree stump the day before as he and his brothers had finished chopping trees. As he went farther into the woods he came to a quiet and secluded spot where he then knelt to pray.12
Little did this fourteen-year-old boy suspect what was about to happen to him. This was a monumental crisis for Satan. He knew that if this boy addressed the heavens with the prayerful plea he had in his mind it would trigger the eternal forces of God and launch the great last gospel dispensation of the fullness of times. The Apostle Peter had prophesied of this restoration of all things.13
The angry and spiteful Satan had a plan. He would kill Joseph. As Joseph knelt upon the ground, closed his eyes, and began to pray, he reported:
“I heard a noise behind me like some person walking toward me. I strove again to pray, but could not. The noise of the walking seemed to draw nearer. I sprung up on my feet, and looked around, but saw no person or thing that was calculated to produce the noise of walking.”14
He was then “seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me.... Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction.”15
Joseph had not been expecting this sudden attack. With a sense of panic and desperation, Joseph exerted all of his strength as he cried out to God to save him. He felt as if he was about to be utterly destroyed.
The Appearance of the Father and the Son
The violent attack by Satan had thrown Joseph flat on his back, and as he gazed upward he suddenly saw a piercing distant light. As it slowly descended toward him, the agony of the destroyer immediately departed from him. However, he was now frightened by the fire-like brilliance of the light coming toward him. Orson Pratt reported that:
“As [the light] drew nearer it increased in brightness and magnitude, so that by the time it reached the tops of the trees, the whole wilderness for some distance around was illuminated in a most brilliant and glorious manner. He expected to have seen the leaves and boughs of the trees consumed as soon as the radiant light came in contact with them, but perceiving that it did not produce that effect, he was encouraged with the hope of being able to endure its presence.”16
As the light fully enveloped Joseph, he saw within it two personages who resembled each other in both appearance and glory. One of them called Joseph by name, and then, pointing to the other, said, “This is my Beloved Son. Hear Him!”17
Joseph Asks Which Church is Right
Joseph was frank in admitting that this heavenly vision had created such an emotional trauma in him that he was temporarily speechless.18 When he had originally knelt to pray, he had been merely expecting a feeling in his heart that would tell him which church to join. But then he had been attacked and nearly destroyed, and now two glorious beings had appeared and asked him what he wanted, and he couldn’t speak. After struggling for a moment, he gained control of his feelings so that he could ask his question.
“I asked the personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right ... and which I should join.”19
Joseph was given a startling response. He reported:
“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 commandments the doctrines of men; they have a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.’”20
The Lord then told Joseph many things that he never felt comfortable in completely revealing,21 but it appears to have included the promise that with the passing of time the Lord’s pure gospel and His one true church would be restored to the earth. He was also given the thrilling promise that if he remained faithful and obedient he could participate in the restoration of God’s great kingdom.22
After being released from a dark and life-threatening influence, Joseph was relieved but speechless when the Father and Son first appeared in a pillar of light.
When the vision ended Joseph found himself lying on his back and gazing upward, completely depleted of strength.23 He did not know it then, but similar visions had left men like Moses helpless and weak for several hours.24 After a while Joseph finally struggled to his feet and went home.
The distance between the Sacred Grove where the vision occurred and the log home of the Smith family was not very far, but he reached it with difficulty. When he arrived home he leaned weakly against the fireplace. His mother was alarmed at his appearance and asked him if he was ill. He said that he was all right and that he had learned that the church she wanted him to join was not the true church.25 This must have surprised his mother, but there is no record of her reaction.
How the News of the First Vision Leaked Out
As far as we can tell, the first person who heard the full account of Joseph’s vision was the Methodist minister who had taught in his sermon that anyone could ask God to find out which church to join. Naturally, Joseph was anxious to tell him what had happened when he sought the Lord in prayer. But the minister was stunned when Joseph described his experience. In fact, he behaved in a manner that greatly surprised Joseph:
“He treated my communication not only lightly, but with great contempt, saying, it was all of the devil, that there were no such things as visions or revelations in these days; that all such things had ceased with the Apostles, and that there would never be any more of them.”26
Instead of keeping Joseph’s statements confidential, the minister soon spread the word that Joseph was the victim of revelations from Satan.
Immediately Joseph and the entire Smith family came under a tidal wave of ridicule and persecution. It became difficult for them to obtain work, especially for Joseph, and they were ostracized by their neighbors.27 This experience left a deep scar on the mind of this adolescent boy. Eighteen years later he wrote:
“It caused me serious reflection then, and often has since, how very strange it was that an obscure boy of a little over 14 years of age, and one, too, who was doomed to the necessity of obtaining a scanty maintenance by his daily labor, should be thought a character of sufficient importance to attract the attention of the great ones of the most popular sects of the day, and in a manner to create in them a spirit of the most bitter persecution and reviling. But strange or not, so it was. It was often the cause of great sorrow to myself.
“However, it was nevertheless a fact that I had beheld a vision.... I had actually seen a light, and in the midst of the light I saw two Personages, and they did in reality speak to me; and though I was hated and persecuted for saying that I had seen a vision, yet it was true; and while they were persecuting me, reviling me and speaking all manner of evil against me falsely for so saying, I was led to say in my heart, ‘Why persecute me for telling the truth? I have actually seen a vision, and who am I that I can withstand God, or why does the world think to make me deny what I have actually seen?’ For I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it, at least I knew that by so doing I would offend God, and come under condemnation.”28
Overthrowing Centuries of Misunderstanding About God
It is true that many sectarian doctrines about the concept of the Godhead were shown to be false because of Joseph’s vision. Joseph had learned that God was an approachable and loving Father, not an aloof and distant being who cared little for humanity. God would even answer the prayer of a humble farm boy.
Joseph had noted that God the Father and Jesus Christ had appeared as two separate individuals, both possessing resurrected bodies. Jesus acted under the Father’s direction, and the Father approved of Jesus’ actions. They were one in purpose and unified in their love and concern for humanity, but they appeared as two separate beings.
Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, Joseph learned from his experience of the First Vision that God had not ceased to communicate with mankind in modern times.
However, local ministers were indignant. They were certainly threatened. If a mere boy could speak with God, what good were they? Since their livelihood depended on the preaching of the word of God, they were participants in priestcraft and they saw in Joseph a threat to their income. So they struck back by spreading vicious lies and misinformation about Joseph and his family.
As the monster of pernicious persecution raised its bitter head, Joseph and his family patiently waded through these afflictions that came upon them. This was the beginning of a lifetime of persecution for the Smith family, and its intensity would only increase in the years that followed.
Joseph’s Family Supports Him
In these difficult times Joseph’s family believed him completely. His brother William later said:
“We all had the most implicit confidence in what he said. He was a truthful boy. Father and Mother believed him, why should not the children? I suppose if he had told crooked stories about other things we might have doubted his word ... but Joseph was a truthful boy. That father and mother believed his report and suffered persecution for that belief shows that he was truthful. No, sir, we never doubted his word for one minute.”29
Joseph’s family believed and supported him even though they were severely persecuted for it.
Waiting for the Next Step in the Lord’s Plan
As the years began to pass since Joseph’s vision and he continued to suffer under “the most bitter persecution and reviling,”30 the Lord needed Joseph to patiently wait for the next step in His plan. Joseph needed to mature physically, emotionally and spiritually. He needed to learn vital lessons that would be necessary for his survival later in life.
As he came to the conclusion of his teenage years, Joseph would discover firsthand the gravity of the task that lay ahead.
1. William E. Berrett and Alma P. Burton, Readings in LDS Church History, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1953) 1:2.
2. Strickland, W.P., ed., Autobiography of Peter Cartwright, the Backwoods Preacher, (New York: Carlton & Porter, 1857), p. 326.
3. Joseph Smith-History 1:7.
4. Joseph Smith the Prophet, pp. 21-22.
5. Joseph Smith-History 1:8.
6. Joseph Smith the Prophet, p. 22. There is some evidence that this may have been the Reverend George Lane. See Larry C. Porter’s article “Reverend George Lane—Good ‘Gifts,’ Much ‘Grace’ and Marked ‘Usefulness,’” BYU Studies (Spring 1969) 9:3:321-340.
7. James 1:5-6.
8. Joseph Smith the Prophet, pp. 22-23, quoting Willard Bean, The Beginning of Mormonism.
9. Joseph Smith the Prophet, p. 23.
10. John C. Lefgren, “Oh, How Lovely Was the Morning: Sunday, March 26, 1820?”, Meridian Magazine, October 9, 2002.
11. Joseph Smith-History 1:14.
12. Joseph Smith the Prophet, pp. 23, 31.
13. Acts 3:21.
14. Dean C. Jessee, ed., Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2002), pp. 104-105.
15. Joseph Smith-History 1:15.
16. Orson Pratt, Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions and of the Late Discovery of Ancient American Records (Edinburgh: Ballantyne and Hughes, 1840), p. 5.
17. Joseph Smith-History 1:17.
18. Joseph Smith-History 1:18.
19. Joseph Smith-History 1:18.
20. Joseph Smith-History 1:19.
21. Joseph Smith-History 1:20.
22. Orson Pratt, August 14, 1859, Journal of Discourses 7:221.
23. Joseph Smith-History 1:20.
24. Moses 1:10.
25. Joseph Smith-History 1:20.
26. Joseph Smith-History 1:21.
27. Joseph Smith the Prophet, p. 33.
28. Joseph Smith-History 1:23-25.
29. Comprehensive History of the Church 1:40.
30. Joseph Smith-History 1:23.