Notes, commentary, and questions for LDS Sunday School teachers using the ‘Doctrine & Covenants and Church History’ manual. Feel free to share your thoughts or ideas regarding the lesson in the comments.*
There is a great deal of scope within this lesson to explore a number of important themes that pertain to Joseph Smith’s First Vision. The manual encourages teachers to discuss the religious environment from which this vision emerged as well inviting us to consider the place that this event has in the history of Christianity. This lesson provides rich and exciting possibilities for examining the contexts for and consequences of JS’s vision of God and Jesus Christ. In this set of notes, I want to focus on a few of those possibilities which emerge from the multiple accounts of the first vision. These accounts prompt reflection about the the nature of revelation in the church and in our personal lives.
Elder Nelson has said: ‘You will want to study… and become familiar with each of the recorded accounts of the First Vision’ while arguing that ‘these accounts were given under different circumstances to different audiences and for different purposes’. This lesson is an ideal opportunity to follow Elder Nelson’s counsel.
There are a number of very useful resources that can be used to explore these narratives. First, and perhaps most important, are the Joseph Smith Papers. Teachers could discuss the 1832 and 1838 (the JS-H) accounts, and both of these are available for online. The website and browser for the Joseph Smith Papers are simply excellent and well worth showing to the class if you can. Milton Backman has a useful article in the Ensign which discusses the different versions while attempting to harmonize them. If you want something extracurricular then our own Steve Taysom has recently written an excellent article discussing the vision at length and Ben Park has reviewed that article over at JI. Finally, a very nice chart of the different accounts, and what they emphasize, has been published by the journal, Restoration Studies.
1832 and 1838 accounts
Elder Nelson’s comment, cited above, suggests that we reflect on the different purposes of these accounts and also on their intended audiences. Although both accounts seem to be part of an effort to record the history of the church they certainly reveal quite different emphases. It may worth discussing what what people think is the primary focus of the 1832 account and how this might be different from the account that we are more familiar with (1838)? At the same there may be some interesting parallels between the two versions. Do they reflect JS’s changing or maturing understanding of what the event may have meant to him and also its implications to the wider church and world?
Another example of a similar event is found in a very interesting BYU Studies article by Lavina Anderson, entitled ‘Prayer under a Pepper Tree: Sixteen Accounts of a Spiritual Manifestation‘. In this paper Anderson discusses a spiritual experience of Elder McKay and others while he was in the middle of his world tour. When Elder McKay was in Hawai’i in 1921, during a prayer of thanksgiving which he gave at the site of a chapel there, those present felt ‘the veil was very thin’. Anderson reviews the sixteen quite different accounts of this experience from McKay and others that had been shared in both public and private since the vent. She offers this conclusion:
“spiritual experiences are often untidy, paradoxical, unfolding their meaning slowly over time as the participant’s understanding matures and as other experiences illuminate it. These accounts… remind us that our human limitations mean we can glimpse portions of a truth, the wholeness of which we will apprehend only later.”
Perhaps JS First Vision had a similar quality. As he reflected on the experience and what it meant to him it is possible that it came to take on broader meaning that just his own immediate conversion to Christ, as suggested in the 1832 account. I have experienced a few quite dramatic (for me at least) spiritual experiences in my life but those moments of spiritual awakening have often developed new connotations as I have changed. Others too may feel the same about a particular experience or blessing they have received.
Regarding JS’s vision, it is possible that one of these broader meanings concerns the possibility that such experiences could become available to all. JS’s persistent efforts to seek after and to provide an endowment of power through priesthood ordinances (or ritual) and new doctrines (theology were geared to offering the saints there own vision of Christ. In this sense, Kathleen Flake’s comment regarding JS is especially pertinent:
Joseph Smith’s uniqueness can, I think, be understood by an analogy that I sometimes use to Henry Ford. Henry Ford wanted a car in every home. Joseph Smith was the Henry Ford of revelation. He wanted every home to have one, and the revelation he had in mind was the revelation he’d had, which was seeing God.
While reflecting on this statement, it may be worthwhile returning to the 1838 account. After Joseph asks which church he should join, Jesus informs him that he should join none of them because ‘they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they… have a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof’ (JS-H: 19). If we accept that the restoration is still in process, that is, if there are still many great and wonderful truths to be revealed (Article of Faith 9) and also that we have yet to build Zion (Article of Faith 10), then perhaps this rebuke can still apply to us. Are our hearts still far from the Lord? Do we have a form of godliness but deny the power thereof?
What does it mean for our hearts to be far from the Lord? One possible interpretation refers to our love of the Saviour. In this sense, when we fail to love God and Christ our hearts are far from them. I suspect that this does not apply to most of the people who worship with us on a Sunday. But another possibility might be that this phrase refers to whether or not our hearts are similar to the heart of Jesus; in other words, if we fail to love as he does then our hearts would be far from him.
What are the forms of Godliness? It is possible – though I am not sure this is historically accurate – that these ‘forms’ may refer to the ordinances of the gospel. These rituals (or ordinances) which attempt to show us the structure of heaven by reforming our relationships with others while they order us according to the pattern of God. From this view, we have been given the ordinances (or the forms of godliness) but it is possible that we, too, are guilty of having hearts that are too far from the Lord because we have resisted this ordering that comes through the ordinances.
If the restoration is still in process then we are also still in the process of leaving the apostasy. JS’s First Vision, then, is not merely a seminal event in the history of the world nor is it solely his personal conversion; but it is also a call to repent and to seek the face of God.
1. Russell M. Nelson, “At the Heart of the Church”, in The Prophet and his Work: Essays from General Authorities on Joseph Smith and the Restoration (Deseret Book 1996): 50-65.
* This sentence was added after the post was initially published.