Joseph Smith–History Insight #17
As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have studied the accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision over many decades— particularly the account canonized in the Pearl of Great Price—they have come to understand that the vision makes a number of important doctrinal contributions to the Restoration.1 In a 2016 worldwide devotional for young adults, Elder Richard J. Maynes of the Seventy urged, “Joseph Smith’s First Vision is the key to unlocking many truths that had been hidden for centuries. Let us not forget or take for granted the many precious truths we have learned from the First Vision.”2 So what, exactly, are some of the important truths we learn from the First Vision?
Perhaps the most fundamental truth that is learned from the First Vision is the reality of a personal God who speaks to His children. Indeed, this appears to have been the chief significance Joseph himself took away from his encounter with the Father and the Son.3 As President Henry B. Eyring testified, “Our challenge is to act so that we can receive the messages of truth Heavenly Father is ready to send to us as revelation and to recognize what He has already sent. Joseph Smith’s experience [in the Sacred Grove] provides an example of that.”4 The factors to receiving personal revelation that President Eyring felt were illustrated in the process leading up to the First Vision include diligently searching the scriptures, coming before the Lord with a contrite spirit and broken heart, and acting on faith in anticipation to receive an answer to prayer.
Another deeply important truth that Latter-day Saints today recognize from the First Vision concerns the nature of the Godhead. As President Dallin H. Oaks taught during the April 2017 general conference of the Church:
Our first article of faith declares, “We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.” We join other Christians in this belief in a Father and a Son and a Holy Ghost, but what we believe about Them is different from the beliefs of others. We do not believe in what the Christian world calls the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. In his First Vision, Joseph Smith saw two distinct personages, two beings, thus clarifying that the then-prevailing beliefs concerning God and the Godhead were not true.5
This point has been rightly emphasized by several Latter-day Saint writers.6 So too has been what the First Vision demonstrates about the existence of Satan and his opposition to the work of God.7 Joseph recorded in two of his four firsthand accounts of the vision that the adversary attempted to stop him from praying while seeking God in the grove.8 In his 1835 account, Joseph recounted,
I made a fruitless attempt to pray; my tongue seemed to be swollen in my mouth, so that I could not utter. I heard a noise behind me, like some person walking towards me. I strove again to pray but could not. The noise of 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.9
In his 1838–39 retelling, Joseph portrayed this encounter with Satan more vividly.
After I had retired to the place where I had previously designed to go, having looked around me, and finding myself alone, I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God. 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. Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction. (Joseph Smith–History 1:15)
The Prophet described this opposition he experienced as “the power of some actual being from the unseen world, who had such marvelous power as I had never before felt in any being” (Joseph Smith–History 1:16). He quickly learned like other prophets, however, that Satan’s power is limited and indeed impotent in the presence of the Almighty (Joseph Smith–History 1:16–17; cf. Moses 1:11–22). “That terrible opposition, which continued throughout Joseph’s life, came because Lucifer wanted to stop the revelation that would lead to the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ,” taught President Eyring. “Your prayers for revelation from God will face lesser opposition, but you need to follow Joseph’s example of courage and persistence.”10
A look at how Latter-day Saints over the years have come to understand the importance of the First Vision for bolstering and clarifying essential truths of the Restoration thus verifies the observation made by Milton V. Backman:
[Restoration doctrine] is, in the words of Stephen L. Richards (a former councilor in the First Presidency), “steeped in the verity of the First Vision.” It undergirds the doctrine of an anthropomorphic God and theomorphic man, of the relationships of the persons of the Godhead, and of continual revelation. Mormon prayers, hymns, forms of worship, and eschatology are all rooted in this understanding. It renews the witness of the Hebrew prophets that visions are not the least but the most reliable mortal access to the divine; that the majesty, glory, and power of God are “beyond description”; that the biblical record of face-to-face communion with God is more than a strained metaphor. It confirms the New Testament testimony of the apostles that God the Father and Jesus Christ are separate persons who manifest themselves as they are to the sons and daughters of God; and that the Son is in the similitude of the Father, and the Father in the similitude of the Son.11
Taylor Halverson and Lisa Halverson, Beautiful Truths from the First Vision (American Fork, UT: Covenant, 2020).
Larry E. Dahl, “The Theological Significance of the First Vision,” in Studies in Scripture, Volume Two: The Pearl of Great Price, ed. Robert L. Millet and Kent P. Jackson (Salt Lake City, UT: Randall Book, 1985), 315–337.
B. Haws, “First Vision, doctrinal contributions of,” in Pearl of Great Price Reference Companion, ed. Dennis L. Largey (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2017), 123–125.
Henry B. Eyring, “The First Vision: A Pattern for Personal Revelation,” Ensign, February 2020, 12–17.
Richard J. Maynes, “The First Vision: Key to Truth,” Ensign, June 2017, 60–65.
1 For representative treatments, see Larry E. Dahl, “The Theological Significance of the First Vision,” in Studies in Scripture, Volume Two: The Pearl of Great Price, ed. Robert L. Millet and Kent P. Jackson (Salt Lake City, UT: Randall Book, 1985), 315–337; Larry C. Porter, “The Youth of the Grove and the Prophet of the Restoration,” in Joseph: Exploring the Life and Ministry of the Prophet, ed. Susan Easton Black and Andrew C. Skinner (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2005), 36–46; Richard D. Draper, S. Kent Brown, and Michael D. Rhodes, The Pearl of Great Price: A Verse–by–Verse Commentary (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2005), 336–343; J. B. Haws, “First Vision, doctrinal contributions of,” in Pearl of Great Price Reference Companion, ed. Dennis L. Largey (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2017), 123–125; Taylor Halverson and Lisa Halverson, Beautiful Truths from the First Vision (American Fork, UT: Covenant, 2020).
2 Richard J. Maynes, “The First Vision: Key to Truth,” Ensign, June 2017, 65.
3 See Pearl of Great Price Central, “What Did Joseph Smith Learn from the First Vision?” Joseph Smith–History Insight #16 (March 25, 2020).
4 Henry B. Eyring, “The First Vision: A Pattern for Personal Revelation,” Ensign, February 2020, 14. See also Halverson and Halverson, Beautiful Truths of the First Vision, 35–41.
5 Dallin H. Oaks, “The Godhead and the Plan of Salvation,” Ensign, May 2017, 100.
6 Dahl, “The Theological Significance of the First Vision,” 315–316; Draper, Brown, and Rhodes, The Pearl of Great Price, 341–342; Haws, “First Vision, doctrinal contributions of,” 123–124; Maynes, “The First Vision,” 65; Halverson and Halverson, Beautiful Truths of the First Vision, 15–21.
7 Dahl, “The Theological Significance of the First Vision,” 321–324; Haws, “First Vision, doctrinal contributions of,” 123; Maynes, “The First Vision,” 64; Eyring, “The First Vision,” 16–17.
8 See also the secondhand accounts preserved in Orson Pratt, A[n] Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, and of the Late Discovery of Ancient American Records (Edinburgh: Ballantyne and Hughes, 1840), 5; Orson Hyde, Ein Ruf aus der Wüste, eine Stimme aus dem Schoose der Erde (Frankfurt: Im Selbstverlage des Verfassers, 1842), 14–15; Alexander Neibaur, Journal, 24 May 1844, extract, [p. 23].
9 Journal, 9–11 November 1835, 23–24, spelling standardized.
10 Eyring, “The First Vision,” 16.
11 Milton V. Backman Jr., “First Vision,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow. MacMillan: New York, 1992), 1:516.