[Another part of my ongoing "Tips for Teachers" series. See the associated links here.]
My friend’s ward has an interesting Elder’s Quorum lesson schedule and I’m not sure how wide-spread it is in other wards. It goes like this:
1st Sunday: EQ Presidency Message
2 & 3rd: PH/RS manual
4th: “Teachings for our Times” (usually a conference address)
5th: Bishopric message
Here’s the gist of how I went about it:
I printed out copies of the accounts for members of the quorum so we could read the words together. I also printed a color copy of an image of the written 1832 account to pass around. (A teacher might also simply bring a laptop or tablet to show the actual images posted at the Joseph Smith Papers website.) Before mentioning the First Vision, I began the lesson by talking about how our own memories of important events sometimes shift in emphasis over time depending on later life experiences. I had members of the class offer a few examples. Then I referred to something I recall learning from Richard Bushman (though I forget where)—that when Joseph left the grove of trees in 1820 he had no idea he’d just encountered “The First Vision.” Then we read the accounts and discussed them together as we went along.
One of the main observations I emphasized regarded Joseph’s motive in going out to pray. We typically talk about his confusion over which church to join, but the first written account suggests that Joseph was very concerned about his own standing in the eyes of God. He felt sinful and wished for forgiveness. In effect, Joseph was asking God, “Do you love me?” I emphasized the “forgiveness” element of the experience more than the “abomination” elements. I had the group again read the first words Joseph reported the Lord saying to him: “Joseph my son thy sins are forgiven thee.”
I’m speeding through it, so the impact won’t be the same for your class as it is as you are reading this perfunctory blog post, but you get the idea. Of course, you can also spend time examining the differences or perceived discrepancies in the written record, and you’ll likely be pleased with the interesting comments class members make when interacting firsthand with documents they likely have never before read. For me, above all, I was happy to emphasize this very personal element of Joseph’s encounter with God, an element most of us should find terribly and personally meaningful.
Here’s a copy of the document I used, including links to the pertinent Joseph Smith Papers sources and some additional recommendations.