Audio for Episode 4, “A Pillar of Light”
Spencer: For historians studying Joseph Smith’s first vision, the fact that his recounting of the event was recorded at different times of his life is immensely beneficial. We’ll examine these different accounts in greater detail in later episodes. They provide insights into the vision that help us better understand what the experience meant to Joseph in 1820 and how that meaning developed with time.
Another benefit of the different accounts is that they allow us to include illuminating details in telling the story of Joseph Smith in the grove of trees near his family’s farm. Most Latter-day Saints are quite familiar with the story as it appears in the Pearl of Great Price. But something special happens when we combine that account with the others, and that is what we’re doing in this episode.
This is The First Vision: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast, and I’m your host, Spencer McBride.
Spencer: Episode Four: A Pillar of Light.
Spencer: To this point in the podcast, we have focused on the events and the questions that brought Joseph Smith to the woods to pray. Well, now we’ve reached the main event, as it were. The vision itself.
To help describe the vision, I am turning to audio from a short film produced by the church in 2016. The film currently plays in the First Vision Theater at the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City.
Part of what makes this short film so noteworthy and useful is that it combines the nine surviving accounts of the vision recorded by Joseph or his close associates during Joseph’s lifetime. The result is a fluid telling of the First Vision using contemporary accounts of the event. You will hear a story in a way that is at once familiar and new.
So, let’s get right to it. To set the scene, Joseph has entered the grove of trees near his family’s home to pray.
Audio from Museum First Vision Video: “After I retired into 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 cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go to obtain mercy.”
“It was the first time in my life that I had made the attempt to pray vocally.”
“Immediately, I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me and had such astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so I could not speak.”
“My mind filled with doubts and all manner of inappropriate images. It seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction.”
“But exerting all my powers to call upon God to deliver me, my mouth was opened, and my tongue liberated.”
Spencer: At this point, a pillar of light descended in the grove and rested upon Joseph. To Joseph, that light looked like fire. But it was too bright to be fire. It was brighter than any light he had ever seen. In fact, in the days and years that would follow, he would struggle to describe the light in a way that others could comprehend.
In that light, Joseph saw two personages. The first, who Joseph identified in his 1838 account as God the Father, called Joseph by name, “Joseph,” and then introduced the other as Jesus Christ: “This is my beloved son. Hear Him.” In an 1835 account, we learn that there were angels present as well.
Jesus told Joseph that his sins were forgiven—“Joseph, thy sins are forgiven thee”—and urged him to walk in His statutes and keep His commandments.
This was a direct answer to Joseph’s primary question. Remember, he had worried about the state of his soul and desired forgiveness of his sins. Now, he had answers. Now, he had forgiveness. Now, he had a profound sense of God’s love for him.
Then Jesus addressed Joseph’s other question, the one that concerned which of all the churches he should join. The language varies in the different accounts of the vision, but the sentiment remains constant.
Jesus told Joseph that “The world lieth in sin. . . . They have turned aside from the gospel and keep not my commandments. They draw near to me with their lips while 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.”
Referring to the churches then competing for the participation of people like Joseph, Jesus instructed him to “go not after them,” or, in other words, to join none of the churches. Instead, he encouraged Joseph to “wait patiently,” promising that “at a future time . . . the complete truth of the gospel [would] be revealed to [him].”
In the 1838 account of the vision, Joseph explained, “Many other things did he say unto me which I cannot write at this time.”
Audio from Museum First Vision Video: “When the light had departed, I had no strength. Peace and calm filled my mind. My soul was filled with love. For many days, I could rejoice with great joy, and the Lord was with me. I had received a promise that the fullness of the gospel should at some future time be made known unto me. And, I had actually seen a light, and in the midst of that light I saw two personages, and they did in reality speak to me.”
“I knew it, and I knew God knew it, and I could not deny it.”
Spencer: In this telling of the First Vision from the combined accounts, there are several aspects of the event—small details, really—that are not readily apparent in any one account by itself.
I’ll give you an example. Think about the descriptions of Joseph’s feelings as he wrestled with an invisible power in the moments before the vision, and his feelings as the vision came to a close. Did you catch that? Did you notice the contrast?
In that tense moment before the vision when Joseph felt seized upon by an unseen power, his mind was “filled with doubts and all manner of inappropriate images.” He felt doomed to sudden destruction. But as he was enwrapped in the vision—and in the vision’s aftermath—he stated that “Peace and calm filled my mind. My soul was filled with love.”
Peace. Calm. Love. These are poignant descriptors. They help us imagine how Joseph felt. Yet, for me at least, as I try to grasp Joseph’s joy and sense of awe in this moment, I still find it difficult to fully fathom. Nevertheless, from surviving accounts, it becomes abundantly clear that Joseph treasured the experience at that time and that it was from then on, a formative moment in his life.
I think this is a good time to mention that if you are interested in reading the different accounts of the First Vision from which this episode has drawn, you can go to josephsmithpapers.org and read them for yourself. You can read the text of the accounts and explore high-resolution color images of the original documents themselves.
Spencer: In the days immediately following Joseph Smith’s experience in the woods near his family’s home, Joseph told others about his vision. Who he told—and the way they responded—had a lasting impact on the young boy. In fact, that immediate response influenced the way that Joseph, as an adult, told others about his formative encounter with the divine. We’ll talk about that in the next episode of The First Vision: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast.