Accounts of the First Vision

The basis of this post has been drawn from the following website and some ideas selected from it. The post are my thoughts and contributions to this topic:

https://knowhy.bookofmormoncentral.org/content/why-are-there-multiple-accounts-of-joseph-smith-and-almas-visions

With the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ, there has always been opposition. Arguments and theories to denounce the truth of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s revelations have been voiced and brought forward. Most, if not all, of these arguments have all stood their ground but ultimately not been able to prove the fact that Joseph Smith was not inspired of God.

One of these supposed reasons for why the Restoration should only be a footnote in American religious history rather a true global event is the evidence of accounts from the First Vision. Some have claimed (and continue to claim) that Joseph Smith did not see the Father and the Son in the grove of trees on that spring day in 1820 because the accounts, or versions, he gave of this experience differ from one telling to the other.

I considered telling of the experience here in case any reading were not aware of this First Vision but then realised that telling one account of the experience would not help as there have indeed been a number of accounts from Joseph himself that differ in details. A useful visual of what is contained or not contained in certain versions can be seen below:
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As can be seen here – there are four separate documented versions of the First Vision given by Joseph Smith himself. Incidentally, this makes the First Vision “the best-documented theophany—vision of God—in history,” meaning we have a lot of evidence to draw from here. However, because of the lack of certain details in different versions of the vision, some try to claim that this shows that Joseph Smith made the vision up, that it didn’t really happen – otherwise wouldn’t he remember every detail? For example, the Saviour was not introduced by the Father in Joseph’s first documented telling of the experience in 1832 yet in the 1835, 1838 and 1842 versions the Father is described as introducing the Saviour. Some question the truth of the entire First Vision because of this.

From all four versions, there are these details that are consistent: that Joseph had questions about which religion was true, he searched the scripture, that there was a vision and he spoke with the Lord Jesus Christ. The other details (such as Satan attempting to prevent the prayer, the pronouncement that Joseph’s sins were forgiven and the context of there being religious excitement in America at that time) are not found in all the accounts.

So, this means the event didn’t happen? Personally, I find it astonishing that some can cite this as a reason for the First Vision not happening. Stories that happened are retold often with certain details being omitted or being made more of a focal point for the lesson they are told for. Experiences and stories are rarely told for no reason, without a teaching point to be made.

I will refer to three examples where experiences or events are retold for various purposes and yet this does not lessen the fact that they happened.

1. Alma the Younger is converted

In Mosiah 27, Alma 36 and Alma 38 we read of the same pivotal experience, the angel appearing to Alma the Younger to halt his destructive progress against the Church of Christ and invite him to the Saviour. Some details of the accounts are remarkably similar. For example, Mosiah 27:11 states that the angel spoke with “a voice of thunder, which caused the earth to shake upon which they stood,” and Alma 36:7 states: “He spake unto us, as it were the voice of thunder and the whole earth did tremble beneath our feet.” Alma 38:7 does the same thing: “I have seen an angel face to face, and he spake with me, and his voice was as thunder, and it shook the whole earth.” This is just one example of a similarity but there are others in the three accounts.

However, as with the First Vision, some details are inconsistent. For example the role of the sons of Mosiah. In Mosiah 27, there are quite a number of references to them in that experience, in Alma 36 they are mentioned once and in Alma 38 they are not mentioned at all. Does that make us question their involvement with the vision of the angel? Does that make us wonder whether they were actually present or not? Of course not. In this example, the detail is dependant on the person giving the account and the lesson they want to teach by it.

2. The Gospels

You could write a book (and dozens of dedicated students of the scriptures have) about the reasons for the differences in the four Gospels, namely Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. I will not try to cover all the possible examples due to the time it would take and also because I am no where near as familiar with the scriptures as I would have to be to offer an effective narrative.

However, I will take the greatest moment in the history of mankind as a good vehicle to demonstrate how the four Gospels, whilst they offer similar commentaries of the Saviour’s life they do have key differences. The reason? It depends on who told the story and what message they were trying to get across. Whether it’s King Mosiah or Alma and whatever message they are trying to get across, there will naturally be a leaving out of details or an emphasis of points

3. My experience – or any of your examples!

Basically the point is that any experience shared can be used in part or any parts emphasised to make a point. We may leave certain parts out or made certain parts the main part if we want to focus on that. Does that change the actual event? Of course not!

Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, 1.

Making Mountains of Us

This entry is based on an article given in the January 2010 Ensign about a mountaineering guide who explains how, in order to appreciate the top of the mountain, you need to experience the valley first.

When he gets visitors to the park, Richard Chen finds that most, if not all, the visitors are there to ascend up the Jade Mountain. The article says “Visiting the peak, with it’s manmade trails and wonderful view, is a great experience, but Richard tries to explain that there is much to learn and much hidden beauty to find in the more difficult-to-access river gorges and canyons below.” However, there are some visitors who don’t care about that and they are positive they only wish to reach the top via the easiest route.

There are so any lessons that can be learnt from this spiritually. Christ, as ‘the way’ (John 14:6) and the only True Guide, wishes us to return back – with as much experience in this mortal life as possible. Elder Neal A Maxwell said “One’s life … cannot be both faith-filled and stress-free…Therefore, how can you and I really expect to glide naively through life, as if to say, ‘Lord, give me experience, but not grief, not sorrow, not pain, not opposition, not betrayal, and certainly not to be forsaken. Keep from me, Lord, all those experiences which made Thee what Thou art! Then let me come and dwell with Thee and fully share Thy joy!’…Real faith … is required to endure this necessary but painful developmental process.” How can we expect to receive what the Father has if we do not pass through the way prepared by Him?! “…thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment…if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high…” (D&C 121:7-8) said the Lord to Joseph Smith in Liberty Jail.

This idea is similar to the mountain Richard Chen takes his visitors up – they have ‘grown’ higher and higher over thousands of years through the heat and pressure of the two tectonic plates of the Earth’s crust colliding together. This causes the mountain ranges to rise up and up. This can also be likened to our lives as we face bigger challenges and pressures, like a refiner’s fire – we become stronger and stronger.

Mighty Change in Heart

When we are baptised into the Church of God, it does not complete our path of discipleship. We need to continue to endure to the end. There is something that can greatly assist us to, not only endure faithfully to the end, but also ‘enjoy’ life faithfully to the end. That is, receiving a mighty change of heart. This will give us a desire to follow the commandments of God – not just follow them because we have been asked to.

This change of heart can come about in many different ways. It might come as we pray earnestly, studying the scriptures or actively trying to obey a commandment. Here are a few examples:

The people of King Benjamin were not a wicked generation – the King had reigned in righteousness, equity and fairness. However, a mighty change in heart still had to, and did, take place. This indicates it’s certainly not just the wicked who can receive a mighty change in heart. After King Benjamin delivered his powerful sermon from the tower, the people said “Yea, we believe all the words which thou hast spoken unto us; and also, we know of their surety and truth, because of the Spirit of the Lord Omnipotent, which has wrought a mighty change in us, or in our hearts, that we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.” (Mosiah 5:2) This is a perfect example of what happens when we receive a change in heart, you have no disposition to do evil. The change is so powerful that Satan has no effect on you!

Alma the Younger was another person who was given this powerful change in heart. He, unlike the people of King Benjamin, was wicked. At the time he was seeking to destroy the Church of God and yet he was given an experience that would change his life forever. As the story goes, he was stopped by an angel and was unconscious for “the space of two days and two nights.” (Mosiah 27:23) As he was in this state he cried out to God for forgiveness. When he came to, he said “I have repented of my sins, and have been redeemed of the Lord; behold I am born of the Spirit…” (Mosiah 27:24) and the Lord had told him that unless people “become new creatures…they can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God.” (Mosiah 27:26) Alma became a ‘new creature’ or, in other words, had this change of heart.

Many more examples are given of this mighty change – however, there are obviously those whose hearts are too hard that they can’t (or won’t) change. Of course, I’m sure God has the power to penetrate any heart, but it’s down to people and their agency as to whether they will let him in or not. The first example that comes to mind is that of Laman and Lemuel. In the story of retrieving the brass plates, Laman and Lemuel begun striking Nephi and Sam with rods because they felt that they’d lost everything. An angel appeared and commanded them to stop, telling them that the Lord would deliver Laban into their hands. Even so, “…after the angel had departed, Laman and Lemuel again began to murmur…” (1 Nephi 3:31). For a person who was prepared to receive this mighty change (like Alma) this experience would have had a great impact even to the point of conversion, but we see Laman and Lemuel were too hard-hearted to receive that. Another example is that of Pharaoh when Moses was commanded to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. They saw many miracles and wonders in Egypt, wrought by God through Moses and Aaron, even to the point that Pharaoh’s magicians said “This is the finger of God…” but “…Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he hearkened not unto them…” (Exodus 8:19) – his heart would not be changed.

One of the most tragic occurrences is when one does receive a mighty change of heart, but then later on forgets and loses it. Elder Dale G. Renlund explained this in the October 2009 General Conference. He said, speaking of physical heart transplants “…the patients own body recognises the new, lifesaving as ‘foreign’ and begins to attack it. Left unchecked, the body’s natural response will reject the new heart, and the recipient will die.” It is the same with our new, spiritual heart. If we do not give the proper care and attention we need to, problems and even loss of the spiritual change will occur. Elder Renlund went on to say “Occasional heart biopsies are performed wherein small pieces of heart tissue are removed and then examined under a microscope. When signs of rejection are found, medications are adjusted. If the rejection process is detected early enough, death can be averted.” We ourselves need to perform these biopsies on our spiritual hearts, particularly when there has been a positive change. Our medications are things like reading the scriptures, praying, obedience, fasting and so on. If we become casual or carnal in taking our medication, we are putting our spiritual hearts at risk.

One example of this is Saul in the Old Testament. He was chosen by God to be King over all the Israelites and was very blessed spiritually. In fact it says “that when he had turned his back to go from Samuel, God gave him another heart…” (1 Samuel 10:9) so he also received a mighty change in heart, so much so that he was found later prophesying among prophets (see 1 Samuel 10:10-12). Saul was blessed and given great success for a time – but it all went wrong. It began with Saul offering a burnt sacrifice to God without the authority – practising unrighteous dominion. Samuel arrived and said, once he discovered this “…Thou hast done foolishly: thou hast not kept the commandments of the Lord thy God…” (1 Samuel 13:13) and, further disobedience led to a loss of this spiritual rebirth. This culminated in 1 Samuel 16:14 JST where it says “But the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit which is not of God troubled him.” How did this mighty man lose the spiritual experience of his heart’s mighty change to become one of the most tragic figures in the Bible? He did not preserve that mighty change by obeying God’s commandments and by doing so, allowed an evil spirit to enter in and take the new heart’s place.

This also occurred in the History of the Restored Church. In Kirtland, Ohio some of the greatest spiritual experiences of this dispensation were bestowed on the people by the Lord there. One of these experiences was the dedication of the Kirtland Temple. However, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf in the January 2010 Ensign tells us that “Members of the Church – even some of those closest to the Prophet, many of whom were present at the dedication of the temple – apostatised and condemned Joseph as a fallen prophet.” How could these members witness such marvellous scenes, and undoubtedly experience some sort of changes in their hearts, and then reject it all? One of the latter-day prophets, President Harold B. Lee taught “Testimony isn’t something that you have today and you keep always…Testimony is either going to grow and grow to the brightness of certainty, or it is going to diminish to nothingness, depending upon what we do about it. I say, the testimony that we recapture day by day is the thing that saves us from the pitfalls of the adversary.” We need to, everyday, be nurturing our mighty change in heart, just like we would our testimony. As we preserve our conversion feelings and fuel our testimony with that – we can become powerful witnesses of the truth.

Importance of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon

As members of the Church of Jesus Christ we are encouraged to have questions. Two recent invitations during the recent General Conference reaffirmed this to me. One was from Elder Jario Mazzagardi who told of an experience he had early on in his Gospel life. He was a convert and a few months after his baptism he says “Questions began to arise in my mind…”, particularly around why the Restoration had to happen geographically where it did. As he described these ponderings a message became clear to me: having questions is good. Not only is it good but it is vital for our spiritual strength. Another evidence to me that we should be having questions to consider is a new page that has been developed as a result of General Conference  (actually it seems to have been create in April 2015 first but it has been updated for this Conference). This page suggests questions we may have been having and how Conference answered them. It also invites viewers to send their own questions and subsequent answers in.

Why am I focusing so much on questions? There may be times we have questions which challenge our faith in Christ. Such questions are natural. We have forces around us pulling towards and away from God in a constant daily battle – of course we will be influenced. However, with a firm testimony of Joseph Smith and/or the Book of Mormon as scripture, any serious concerns can be aided (notice I didn’t say they will instantly go away). This is partly why the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith are so important to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (or ‘Mormons’). We do not worship these important parts of our religion, only our Saviour Jesus Christ is worthy of our worship along with our Heavenly Father, but they can help us in our worship.

For example, if someone says ‘I don’t believe that God is there, or speaks to people anymore,’ but has gained a testimony that the Book of Mormon is the word of God, then they just need to make that link. If the Book of Mormon is true, that means that Joseph Smith was a prophet and therefore, the account of the First Vision really did happen. If there are serious concerns and the person doesn’t have a testimony from the Holy Ghost that the Book of Mormon is true, that is where the problem lies (despite whatever the question is).

President Ezra Taft Benson taught “…All objections, whether they be on abortion, plural marriage, seventh-day worship etc, basically hinge on whether Joseph Smith and his successors were and are prophets of God receiving divine revelation…The only problem the objector has to resolve for himself is whether the Book of Mormon is true. For if the Book of Mormon is true, then Jesus is the Christ, Joseph Smith was his prophet, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is true, and it is being led today by a prophet…”

And there it is. Sincere seekers of truth who are wanting to change, to become better people through Christ, can overcome any challenge or objection by a belief in the Book of Mormon being the word of God.

Choose your Foundation

A foundation is used many times as an example of what we should build on. For example, Ephesians 2:20 states how the Church of Christ is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets,” illustrating how without apostles and prophets the Church would collapse.

However, we need to decide what foundation we need to be built on – Helaman 5:12 and Mormon 5:18 give us our two options (for, ultimately, there are only two options)…

Helaman 5:12

This verse speaks of the “rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ” so that “when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds…” as long as we are firmly built on this foundation of Christ, we shall not be moved! Helaman is speaking to his sons Nephi and Lehi and he assures them that if they build on Christ, they will have “a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall.”

Mormon 5:18

On the other hand, Mormon tells us what happens if we are not built on the foundation of Christ. He is speaking of the wicked Nephites who are on the verge of extinction because of their iniquities. This is because “they are led about by Satan even as chaff is driven before the wind, or as a vessel is tossed about upon the waves, without sail or anchor…” Without the foundation or anchor of Christ, they are easily led to misery by Satan. And so, as it says in verse 19, the Lord reserves their blessings.

We can see the result of these two groups: Nephi and Lehi did teach “with such great power and authority,” (Helaman 5:18) because of where their foundations lay and, in contrast, the Nephite’s in Mormon’s time were utterly destroyed by the Lamanites.

It reminds me of Christ’s parable of the wise and the foolish man (see Matthew 7:24-27). Whoever follows the teachings of Christ is like the wise man who “built his house upon a rock,” and when the rain came “it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.” However, the foolish man built his house on the sand…the rains came “and great was the fall of [the house].”

Spiritual Fortifications

In the book of Alma, located in the Book of Mormon, a significant portion is a record of the wars and strives between the Nephite nation and the Lamanite nation. The Nephites were, generally, a God-fearing population whose industry and overall integrity had made them to be a strong nation in the midst of their enemies. On the other hand, the Lamanites despised their once-brethren the Nephites due to teachings of their forefathers which stated the Nephites had cheated them of their birthright and they were determined to consume the Nephites for their own gain.

The Leaders

Amalickiah – When we reach Alma 46, it could be said that the leaders that each of these nations had reflected the feelings of these two nations. The leader of the Lamanite armies, Amalickiah, gained his power through deceit and wickedness. had left the Nephite nation he orignally was part of and went to the Lamanites as he was rejected as a potential king over the Nephites. Before leaving to the Lamanites, Amalickiah ensured he made an impact – we read “Yea, we see that Amalickiah, because he was a man of cunning device and a man of many flattering words, that he led away the hearts of many people to do wickedly; yea, and to seek to destroy the church of God, and to destroy the foundation of liberty which God had granted unto them, or which blessing God had sent upon the face of the land for the righteous’ sake.” (Alma 46:10). This ability to lead away souls and to seek to destroy man’s ability to choose for themselves can only be associated with one being; Satan. As such, the Nephite people rallied against this wicked man (led by Captain Moroni who will be discussed) and Amalickiah fled…

He was not finished yet though. Amalickiah retreated to the arms of the Lamanites and vowed his service to them. He was given a place of leadership in the armies of the Lamanites…however, this was not enough for the cold-hearted dissident and he used wicked and crafty ways to eventually become king of the Lamanites (see Alma 47 for the entire account). 

Captain Moroni – On the side of the Nephites, the leader of the Nephite armies was a man called Moroni. Whilst Amalickiah’s methods are synonymous with the tactics and desires of Lucifer in the pre-mortal existance, of Captain Moroni it was said “And Moroni was a strong and a mighty man; he was a man of a perfect understanding; yea, a man that did not delight in bloodshed; a man whose soul did joy in the liberty and the freedom of his country, and his brethren from bondage and slavery; Yea, a man whose heart did swell with thanksgiving to his God, for the many privileges and blessings which he bestowed upon his people; a man who did labor exceedingly for the welfare and safety of his people. Yea, and he was a man who was firm in the faith of Christ, and he had sworn with an oath to defend his people, his rights, and his country, and his religion, even to the loss of his blood…Yea, verily, verily I say unto you, if all men had been, and were, and ever would be, like unto Moroni, behold, the very powers of hell would have been shaken forever; yea, the devil would never have power over the hearts of the children of men.” (Alma 48:11-13, 17) He was a leader that led in love and under the guidance of the Lord. 

Whilst Amalickiah had been deceitfully gaining power, Captain Moroni made preparations to defend against the building threat of the Lamanites. We see of Captain Moroni’s foresight and vision in Alma 48:7 “Now it came to pass that while Amalickiah had thus been obtaining power by fraud and deceit, Moroni, on the other hand, had been preparing the minds of the people to be faithful unto the Lord their God.” This foreknowledge may well have come from his knowledge of the land and reports he received from the Lamanites, for he was also a diligent leader, but also from promptings of the Spirit. In any case, he strengthened his armies, erected forts, built banks of earth and stone walls and placed more men at the weakest parts of his dominion.

Battle of the Latter-days

As I pondered over these events in the Book of Mormon, it struck me how much this relates to the battles we are waging today. I speak not of physical wars, although they are raging, but of the individual, spiritual war-fares we are engaged in.

The opposition have a leader, even more deceitful and cunning than Amalickiah. He does everything within his power (for he does have power) to lead the children of God astray and take away their agency through the bad choices they make – and he is making progress.

We, who are on the Lord’s side, have a Leader, a Commander and a Friend. He is aware of His soldiers and their needs. He is aware of the weaknesses in His followers. He has provided corporals who can support and lead smaller platoons of His army (prophets, local Church leaders). He has provided the weaponry and arsenal to fend off the constant barrages of Satan (scriptures, prayer, Sabbath Day Observance, the Temple). Most importantly, He has a plan – a plan which He has put into motion Himself (the Plan of Salvation, made possible through His Atonement). If we weaken our structural faults by heeding our Commander and strengthening where we need to, then we will succeed with Him. If not, we will fall whilst the battle continues on. He will succeed still (He already has), but we will not be there to enjoy the victory with those who stay close to him. As we build our faith and testimony through the ways mentioned above we will foil the plans of Satan and stand with our Leader at the end…