First, A Note About False Traditions
False traditions are obstacles that keep you from “awakening from your deep sleep” (Alma 5:7) or even “awakening to an awful reality” (2 Nephi 9:47). In my personal journey to awake, arise and know the Lord, I have been faced with the very uncomfortable situation of learning truth. Truth is anything that is revealed directly from the Lord–either personally or through the Spirit of Truth. This sort of truth can be so humbling that it breaks down your personal foundation, but also has power great enough to rebuild it stronger than ever before.
The purpose of dispelling false traditions is to remove obstacles and barriers that truly bring us to become converted to the Savior, Jesus Christ, only. This is never easy. No one, especially the “natural man/woman” enjoys being wrong—me included.
The problem with false traditions, assuming they are in fact false, is that we share them–we pass them onto other generations who, in turn, also share them and pass them on. The natural man/woman finds comfort in these traditions—that’s why we hold onto them and impart them to others as chunks of wisdom in hopes they too will hold onto them for their personal benefit. We find so much comfort in these false traditions. So much so, that we depend on them to the point our personal salvation is linked to or even dependent upon them.
We have to challenge our own orthodoxy while remaining in harmony with doctrine and principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ. When Christ came, he broke the traditions of the Jews and especially the Pharisees because they loved their traditions more than Christ, Himself. They found comfort in their traditions, and they even believed their traditions would save them. Their false traditions were roadblocks or idols in place of Christ.
Confronting unbelief and false tradition is never easy. If you truly love God, value truth, and want to develop faith in the Lord, Jesus Christ, you’ll need to confront your unbelief and seek truth above tradition. Faith can only be founded upon truth. If it is founded upon anything else, it is not faith. If confronting unbelief and false tradition is uncomfortable yet the only way to know the Lord, I will gladly offer that sacrifice.
The False Tradition
2020 is the Bicentennial Anniversary of the First Vision. I would like to celebrate young Joseph Smith and the First Vision by making sure each person has a correct and firm understanding of what Joseph’s true intentions were in seeking divine intervention.
There is a popular narrative among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (of which I am a member) that Joseph Smith as a young boy was seeking for the so called “true church.” The narrative continues that when he petitioned the Lord in prayer the Lord personally told him that they were all wrong and therefore Joseph’s mission was to start a church—even to start “the true church.” I can only assume that this idea exists because the current version of Joseph Smith’s first vision in the Pearl of Great Price does have language about Joseph searching among religious sects of his day:
“My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join… I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right (for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong)—and which I should join… 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 doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.’ He again forbade me to join with any of them.”JSH 1:18-20
However, while he was evaluating the various sects of his day, membership in a church was not his end goal, but it was only a means to a different end. The accurate description of what Joseph Smith was seeking for was truth—truth of how to receive a remission of his sins (personal redemption) which will be explained.
When Joseph Smith became entrenched in seeking out various religious faiths of his day, he was evaluating their doctrines. Joseph’s confusion came when their doctrines did not align with what he personally learned and understood as taught in the Bible. With tremendous hope in the nature of God and exceptional faith, it was this inner turmoil that compelled him to actually settle his dispute with the Lord God.
In addition to the First Vision account identified in The Pearl of Great Price, I recommend you become familiar with other versions of the First Vision—some of which are only recently made publicly available. There is even controversy over why other accounts have been intentionally kept from the public until recent pressure from the online community forced the church to disclose them. However, it is not my intention to discuss that controversy in this post.
The combination of all accounts offers the true, accurate context for Joseph Smith seeking for divine intervention. This is important because it helps understand truly what his motives were in seeking the Lord and later what knowledge was actually restored to Joseph in what has become known as “the restoration of the gospel.”
There are currently known to be ten contemporary accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision, written and/or published from 1832 to 1844, given in chronological order: (1) the 1832 account, which is the only one written by Joseph Smith himself; (2) the 1835 account to Robert Matthias, which describes the appearance of one personage and then soon afterward another personage, who gives an awkward third-person testimony “that Jesus Christ is the son of God”; (3) the 1835 account to Erastus Holmes, which is not really an account but just a reference to “the first visitation of Angels”; (4) the 1838–39 account, which is now accepted as LDS scripture in the Pearl of Great Price; (5) the 1842 account to John Wentworth, which included at the end the Articles of Faith; (6) the Orson Pratt report in his 1840 pamphlet A[n] Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, which adds the detail that when Joseph saw the light descending, “he expected to have seen the leaves and boughs of the trees consumed, as soon as the light came in contact with them”; (7) the Orson Hyde report in his 1842 German pamphlet Ein Ruf aus der Wüste (A Cry from the Wilderness), which closely follows Pratt’s pamphlet; (8) the Levi Richards report in 1843, which states that the Lord told Joseph “that the Everlasting covenant was broken”; (9) the David Nye White report in 1843, which adds the detail that he “went out into the woods where my father had a clearing, and went to the stump where I had stuck my axe when I had quit work,” and then knelt down and prayed; and (10) the Alexander Neibaur report in 1844, which adds the detail that God had “blue eyes.”Dean C. Jessee, “The Earliest Documented Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” in John W. Welch with Erick B. Carlson, eds., Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820–1844 (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 2005), 1–33. See also James B. Allen, “Eight Contemporary Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision: What Do We Learn from Them?” The Improvement Era 73 (April 1970): 4–13; Allen had a total of eight accounts, because he was not aware of the report in the Levi Richards journal and he correctly ignored the short “account” to Erastus Holmes, which is really a one-sentence reference to the First Vision.
Most of the unique contributions of each account are not relevant to this particular discussion. So I will highlight only the few of the accounts starting with the historical account from 1832. Something to note about this version is that “this is the earliest and most personal account, and the only one that includes Joseph Smith’s own handwriting.” (Source: Joseph Smith Papers Project) The purpose of studying these historical accounts is to help you see what Joseph’s true intent was in seeking the Lord and what the Lord’s response was.
JS History, ca. Summer 1832
“A History of the life of Joseph Smith Jr. an account of his marvilous experience and of all the mighty acts which he doeth in the name of Jesus Ch[r]ist the son of the living God of whom he beareth record and also an account of the rise of the church of Christ in the eve of time according as the Lord brought forth and established by his hand <firstly> he receiving the testamony from on high seccondly the ministering of Angels thirdly the reception of the holy Priesthood by the ministring of—Aangels to adminster the letter of the
Law<Gospel—> <—the Law and commandments as they were given unto him—> and in<the> ordinencs, forthly a confirmation and reception of the high Priesthood after the holy order of the son of the living God power and ordinence from on high to preach the Gospel in the administration and demonstration of the spirit the Kees of the Kingdom of God confered upon him and the continuation of the blessings of God to him &c——
“I was born in the town of Charon [Sharon] in the <State> of Vermont North America on the twenty third day of December AD 1805 of goodly Parents who spared no pains to instruct<ing> me in <the> christian religion[.] at the age of about ten years my Father Joseph Smith Seignior moved to Palmyra Ontario County in the State of New York and being in indigent circumstances were obliged to labour hard for the support of a large Family having nine chilldren and as it required theSee also the complete 1832 found here in the Joseph Smith Papers Project.
irexertions of all that were able to render any assistance for the support of the Family therefore we were deprived of the bennifit of an education suffice it to say I was mearly instructtid in reading andwriting and the ground <rules> of Arithmatic which const[it]uted my whole literary acquirements. At about the age of twelve years my mind become seriously imprest [p. 1] with regard to the all importent concerns offor the wellfare of my immortal Soul which led me to searching the scriptures believeing as I was taught, that they contained the word of God thus applying myself to them and my intimate acquaintance with those of differant denominations led me to marvel excedingly for I discovered that <they did not adorn> instead ofadorn ingtheir profession by a holy walk and Godly conversation agreeable to what I found contained in that sacred depository this was a grief to my Soul thus from the age of twelve years to fifteen I pondered many things in my heart concerning the sittuation of the world of mankind the contentions and divi[si]ons the wicke[d]ness and abominations and the darkness which pervaded the of theminds of mankind my mind become excedingly distressed for I become convicted of my sins and by searching the scriptures I found that mand<mankind> did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatised from the true and liveing faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the new testament and I felt to mourn for my own sins and for the sins of the world for I learned in the scriptures that God was the same yesterday to day and forever that he was no respecter to persons for he was God for I looked upon the sun the glorious luminary of the earth and also the moon rolling in their magesty through the heavens and also the stars shining in their courses and the earth also upon which I stood and the beast of the field and the fowls of heaven and the fish of the waters and also man walking forth upon the face of the earth in magesty and in the strength of beauty whose power and intiligence in governing the things which are so exceding great and [p. 2] marvilous even in the likeness of him who created him<them> and when I considered upon these things my heart exclaimed well hath the wise man said the<it is a> fool <that> saith in his heart there is no God my heart exclaimed all all these bear testimony and bespeak an omnipotant and omnipreasant power a being who makith Laws and decreeeth and bindeth all things in their bounds who filleth Eternity who was and is and will be from all Eternity to Eternity and when <I> considered all these things and that <that> being seeketh such to worshep him as worship him in spirit and in truth therefore I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go and toobtain mercy and the Lord heard my cry in the wilderness and while in <the> attitude of calling upon the Lord <in the 16th year of my age> a piller of firelight above the brightness of the sun at noon day come down from above and rested upon me and I was filled with the spirit of god and the <Lord> opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me saying Joseph <my son> thy sins are forgiven thee. go thy <way> walk in my statutes and keep my commandments behold I am the Lord of glory I was crucifyed for the world that all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life <behold> the world lieth in sin andat this time and none doeth good no not one they have turned asside from the gospel and keep not <my> commandments they draw near to me with their lips while their hearts are far from me and mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth to visit them acording to thir ungodliness and to bring to pass that which <hath> been spoken by the mouth of the prophets and Ap[o]stles behold and lo I come quickly as it [is?] written of me in the cloud <clothed> in the glory of my Father and my soul was filled with love and for many days I could rejoice with great Joy and the Lord was with me but could find none that would believe the hevnly vision nevertheless I pondered these things in my heart…
First of all, how simple and beautiful really is this account! Let’s note some very important things that come from what I believe is the most prized account of them all:
- I am personally touched by the tremendous hope in the divine nature of God that young Joseph had at this time. It is clear that his personal study of the New Testament taught him of the omniscience and omnipotence of the Lord God. He truly believed that if God was so marvelous in His creations, that he most certainly had the ability to reveal truth to Him.
- Joseph did not feel insignificant to this awesome God. Instead, he understood that “God was the same yesterday to day and forever that he was no respecter to persons.” What an amazing young man he already was at this time.
- In the 1832 account Joseph’s concern is not what church he should join, because he had already reached the conclusion that none was correct, saying “by searching the scriptures I found that mand <mankind> did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatised from the true and liveing faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the gospel [true doctrine] of Jesus Christ as recorded in the new testament.”
- I want to emphasize how immensely personal this experience really was for Joseph Smith. The omniscient Lord knew of Joseph’s true, inner, personal desire for remission of sins and the Lord responds to his plea with, “I was filled with the spirit of god and the <Lord> opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me saying Joseph <my son> thy sins are forgiven thee.” As a matter of fact, there is not even a mention of the presence of God the Father, further adding to the intimacy between young Joseph and his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ—the only one authorized to offer him forgiveness.
- Contrary to some tradition, this experience itself was not commandment to go into the formal ministry and start “a church.” One church historian comments, “This theophany contained no command to preach repentance or tell anyone of the experience. As a young man, he confided the experience to a few, but Smith’s first vision implied no divine calling, no church, no community of believers, and certainly no ecclesiastical hierarchy. He asked forgiveness of his youthful sins in 1820, which God granted in vision.” (Source: D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, 2nd ed., rev. and enl. (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2009), 137.)
- A summary of the major points of Joseph’s 1832 experience include: his sins are forgiven and that he should keep his commandments; The singular divine being present is the Lord and was crucified for the people of the world, in order that those who believe in him may have everlasting life; the people of the world are in sin; they have turned away from the gospel and do not keep his commandments; the Lord is angry with the people of the world and will punish them for their wickedness; the Lord is coming soon—just as it is written—clothed in his Father’s glory.
If you understand the doctrine of Christ at this point (via The Doctrine of Christ Study Guide), you might consider pondering whether this was a baptism of fire and Holy Ghost experience for Joseph Smith. Also, did you notice any similarities between Joseph’s experience and a person in the Book of Mormon? Joseph’s experience was very Enos-like. Enos also sought for personal redemption from the Lord. Having great hope and faith like Joseph, Enos went into the wilderness and sought all day and night until he did ultimately receive his own baptism of fire and Holy Ghost experience. (See also The Covenant Path Unveiled in the Book of Mormon: The Witness of Enos)
Now let’s examine the 1835 account.
November 9-11, 1835; Monday–Wednesday
“Monday morning 9th. after breckfast Sister <Mary> Whitcher 65 came in and wished to see me, she I granted her request she gave a relation of her griveances which were, unfathonable at present, and if true sore indeed, and I pray my heavenly Father to bring the truth of her case to light, that the reward due to evil doers may be given them, and <that> the afflicted & oppressed may be delivered;— while setting in my house between the hours of nine <ten> & 10 11 this morning a man came in, and introduced himself to me, calling <himself> self <by the name of> Joshua the Jewish minister,66 his appearance was some what < thing> singular, having a beard about 3 inches in length which is quite grey, also his hair is long and considerably silvered with age [p. 22] I should think he is about 50 or 55 years old, tall and strait slender built of thin visage blue eyes, and fair complexion, he wears a sea green frock coat, & pantaloons of the same, black fur hat with narrow brim, and while speaking frequently shuts his eyes, with a scowl on his countinance; 67 I made some enquiry after his name but received no definite answer; we soon commenced talking upon the subject of religion and after I had made some remarks concerning the bible I commenced giving him a relation of the circumstances connected with the coming forth of the book of Mormon, as follows— being wrought up in my mind, respecting the subject of religion and looking upon <at> the different systems taught the children of men, I knew not who was right or who was wrong and concidering it of the first importance that I should be right, in matters that involved eternal consequences; being thus perplexed in mind I retired to the silent grove and bowd down before the Lord, under a realising sense that he had said (if the bible be true) ask and you shall receive knock and it shall be opened seek and you shall find and again, if any man lack wisdom let him ask of God who giveth to all men libarally and upbradeth not; 68 information was what I most desired at this time, and with a fixed determination I to obtain it, I called upon the Lord for the first time, in the place above stated or in other words I made a fruitless attempt to pray, my toung seemed to be swolen in my mouth, so that I could not utter, 69 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 [p. 23] and looked around, but saw no person or thing that was calculated to produce the noise of walking, I kneeled again my mouth was opened and my toung liberated, and I called on the Lord in mighty prayer, a pillar of fire appeared above my head, it presently rested down upon my <me> head, and filled me with joy unspeakable, a personage appeard in the midst, of this pillar of flame which was spread all around, and yet nothing consumed, another personage soon appeard like unto the first, he said unto me thy sins are forgiven thee, he testifyed unto me that Jesus Christ is the son of God; 70 <and I saw many angels in this vision> I was about 14. years old when I received this first communication; When I was about 17 years old I saw another vision of angels…See also the complete 1835 account found here in the Joseph Smith Papers Project.
Let’s note a some very relevant consistencies in this 1835 account:
- Joseph had a very deep and personal concern for his spiritual welfare. “Different systems” or doctrines were taught but Joseph thought that making sure he found the correct doctrine was “the first importance” because it was a “matter that involved eternal consequences (his spiritual salvation).” Not only was it his highest priority but he says that “information was what I most desired at this time, and with a fixed determination I to obtain it.”
- He exhibited incredible hope and faith in explaining that he “retired to the silent grove and bowd down before the Lord, under a realising sense that he had said (if the bible be true) ask and you shall receive knock and it shall be opened seek and you shall find.”
- The Lord “appeard in the midst, of this pillar of flame which was spread all around” and “said unto [him] thy sins are forgiven thee.”
Joseph was not necessarily seeking the Lord’s truth about which church to join just for the sake of official church membership, but rather he desperately wanted to know which church was correctly teaching the path and way to salvation (Christ’s true doctrine.) His and his family’s concerns over which church to join was only relevant as it pertains to the proper means of salvation.
With the more complete and accurate context we have from both the 1832 and 1835 accounts, we can see Joseph’s same intent come alive in the 1838-39 account which is the account cited in the Pearl of Great Price—Joseph Smith History chapter one:
5 Some time in the second year after our removal to Manchester, there was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion. It commenced with the Methodists, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of country. Indeed, the whole district of country seemed affected by it, and great multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties, which created no small stir and division amongst the people, some crying, “Lo, here!” and others, “Lo, there!” Some were contending for the Methodist faith, some for the Presbyterian, and some for the Baptist.
6 For, notwithstanding the great love which the converts to these different faiths expressed at the time of their conversion, and the great zeal manifested by the respective clergy, who were active in getting up and promoting this extraordinary scene of religious feeling, in order to have everybody converted, as they were pleased to call it, let them join what sect they pleased; yet when the converts began to file off, some to one party and some to another, it was seen that the seemingly good feelings of both the priests and the converts were more pretended than real; for a scene of great confusion and bad feeling ensued—priest contending against priest, and convert against convert; so that all their good feelings one for another, if they ever had any, were entirely lost in a strife of words [doctrines] and a contest about opinions. [Notice that it was Joseph’s opinion that the different sects were heavily focused on membership to the point of contending one against another in their religious views. Their contentions of doctrine served the purpose of trying to win converts/membership.]
8 During this time of great excitement 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. In process of time my mind became somewhat partial to the Methodist sect, and I felt some desire to be united with them; but so great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was, and so unacquainted with men and things, to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong. [From the previous accounts, we could safely assume that the confusion was about how their doctrines did not align with his own personal understanding of the New Testament. This is what would have kept him “aloof from all these parties, though (he) attended their several meetings as often as occasion would permit.”]
9 My mind at times was greatly excited, the cry and tumult were so great and incessant. The Presbyterians were most decided against the Baptists and Methodists, and used all the powers of both reason and sophistry to prove their errors, or, at least, to make the people think they were in error. On the other hand, the Baptists and Methodists in their turn were equally zealous in endeavoring to establish their own tenets and disprove all others. [Joseph’s words here are about the doctrines they were preaching. Again, he was seeking for the doctrine of Christ that would pierce his soul and confirm to him the proper way in which he could receive spiritual redemption. A church which encapsulated this true doctrine would only have been a means to an end for Joseph.]
10 In the midst of this war of words [doctrines] and tumult of opinions [philosophies of man mingled with scripture], I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties [and their doctrines] are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?
11 While I was laboring under the extreme difficulties caused by the contests of these parties of religionists, I was one day reading the Epistle of James, first chapter and fifth verse, which reads: 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 him. 12 Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know; for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible. [Notice that his personal appeal to the Bible was not enough for him. He was a seeker of truth—where no doubt could exist. Also, like in the previous accounts, notice how much hope that Joseph had. Hope is belief and confidence in the divine nature of God (see also Faith, Hope & Why Charity Never Faileth.)]
13 At length I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion, or else I must do as James directs, that is, ask of God. I at length came to the determination to “ask of God,” concluding that if he gave wisdom to them that lacked wisdom, and would give liberally, and not upbraid, I might venture. (After “hope,” the only thing left was to figure out the proper action to take—this would be “faith.”)
14 So, in accordance with this, my determination to ask of God, I retired to the woods to make the attempt. It was on the morning of a beautiful, clear day, early in the spring of eighteen hundred and twenty. It was the first time in my life that I had made such an attempt, for amidst all my anxieties I had never as yet made the attempt to pray vocally. [What incredible faith—especially in the midst of doing things that are extremely uncomfortable for us. We often assemble “seeking, knocking, and asking” together but they are each unique acts of faith. This is such a great example of “knocking”—which is an act of faith in an attempt to get the Lord’s attention, despite the fact that He is ever aware of you and the desires of your heart.]
… 17 It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him! [To say this is immensely personal for Joseph (as it is for each person) is an understatement.]
18 My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right [in their doctrine], that I might know which to join [“so I could act on their preached doctrine in order to receive spiritual salvation.”]. No sooner, therefore, did I get possession of myself, so as to be able to speak, than I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right (for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong)—and which I should join. 19 I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong [in their doctrine]; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds [doctrines] 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 doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.” [This account goes as far as to say that the doctrines “were all wrong” because “those professors were all corrupt.” Their corruption was that instead of seeking for the gift of prophecy and revelation on the truth they were left to “teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.” The Book of Mormon explains that to “deny the power of God” is to deny or try to circumvent the gifts of the spirit—the power by which all things are made manifest unto souls.]
20 He again forbade me to join with any of them; and many other things did he say unto me, which I cannot write at this time. [It is my personal learning that the “many other things” spoken to Joseph are related to matters of the Everlasting Covenant and its need to be restored. Note that Levi Richards’ first vision report in 1843, states that the Lord told Joseph “that the Everlasting covenant was broken.” Seek for your own learning and confirmation of that.]
Now that you know the true, proper context for Joseph’s intentions in seeking divine intervention, this should enhance your appreciation for Joseph Smith, his mission, and his relationship with the Lord. This was all part of Joseph’s spiritual awakening in mortality. Joseph is a model for each of us and with the proper context we should have an increased hope in our own relationship with the Lord. We should have increased hope in the divine nature of God, a new willingness to exercise faith. We should have a desire to seek for personal remission of our sins through a baptism of fire and Holy Ghost and even to rediscover our individual potential to know the Lord.
In your own sacred grove, I know the Lord will manifest himself to you. He will forgive you of your sins. He will give you the greatest desires of your heart, because He is just that amazing. I know that, because He has done the same for me. Seek Him. Ask Him. Believe Him. Become perfect in Christ Jesus.
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