Like the story of the Creation itself, sacred stories have layers of detail that can be added or subtracted, veiled or revealed, depending on when it is told, who is telling it, and to whom. So it is with this story.
The year was 1818. Joseph Smith was about twelve years of age when he became “seriously impressed with the all important concerns for the immortal soul.” He “felt to mourn for [his] own sins” and “cried unto the Lord for mercy; considering it of first importance that [he] should be right in matters that involve eternal consequence.” He attended the “several meetings” of the Churches in his area, “as often as occasion would permit.” He wanted to know which Church was true.
“I knew not who was right,” he said, “I found that there was a great clash in religious sentiment; if I went to one society they referred me to one plan, and another to another’ each one pointing to his own particular creed as the summum bonum of perfection.”
“In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, [Joseph] often said to himself, what is to be done? Who of all these parties are right…and how shall I know it?”
This led him to “searching the scriptures, believing …that they contained the word of God.” One day he read in the Book of James, If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God that giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not and if shall be given him” James 1:5.
“Never” he said, “did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine….At length I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion or else I must do as James directs.”
Joseph “determined that [he] would ask [God].” “I immediately went out into the woods; he said, “where my father had a clearing, and went to the stump where I had struck my axe…I kneeled down and prayed.”
No sooner had he done so that he was seized upon by some unseen power that completely overcame him. His mind was filled with darkness, doubt, and all manner of evil. The force was not an “imaginary ruin but…some actual being from the unseen world” that nearly killed him. Joseph exerted all his powers to call upon God, and then discovered a light exactly over his head brighter than the sun at noonday. He called it “a pillar of fire.” The light descended gradually and “increased in brightness and magnitude, so that, by the time that it reached the tops of the trees, the whole wilderness, for some distance around was illuminated in a most glorious and brilliant manner.”
The light “produced a peculiar sensation throughout his whole system.” Joseph was “filled with the Spirit of God.” “I saw two personages,” he recorded, first one then the other, “whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air.” They “exactly resembled each other in features and likeness.”
“One of them spake unto me,” he said, “calling me by name and said, pointing to the other, ‘this is my beloved son. Hear him.’”
Joseph later described that the personage was of a “light complexion, blue eyes, [with] a piece of white cloth drawn over his shoulders.”
“Joseph, my son,” the Lord said, “Thy sins are forgiven thee. Go thy way. Walk in my statutes and keep my commandments.”
Joseph recorded, “No sooner did I get possession of myself so as to be able to speak, than I asked the personage who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right. I was answered that I must join none of them.” “I was expressly commanded ‘to go not after them’ at the same time receiving a promise that the fullness of the Gospel should at some future time be made known unto me.” Joseph saw “many angels in this vision,” and “many other things” was Joseph told that he did not write.
“For many days Joseph rejoiced with great joy for the Lord was with him.” His soul was “filled with love,” but then he added, “But [I] could find none that would believe the heavenly vision.” And thus is the story of one of the greatest visions in all of recorded history according to the several accounts left on record.
Artwork by Jon McNaughton