To understand the first vision, we must also know the events that took place leading up to it. These events can be separated into three main categories:
- A Question Was Asked
- A Means Was Provided
- An Answer Was Given
A QUESTION WAS ASKED.
Joseph Smith grew up during the Second Great Awakening. Many Christian-based religions were booming at this time and doing whatever they could to get more converts and continuing members than the other faiths. Among these rising religious groups were the Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterians. The Smith family was just as much a part of this Great Awakening as were everyone else in the area at the time. Joseph explained that his “father’s family was proselyted to the Presbyterian faith, and four of them joined that church, namely, my mother, Lucy; my brothers Hyrum and Samuel Harrison; and my sister Sophronia.” Five members of his family made it difficult to think of joining another religion because of the arguments that ensued when such a thing occurred. It is said that priests would fight against other priests over who was in their congregations. Joseph again explains what it was like living in this time when he says “The seemingly good feelings of both the priests and the converts were more pretended than real…so that all their good feelings, one for another, if they had any, were entirely lost… 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.”
Considering the young age of Joseph while this was going on, being a young teenager, it is easy to understand his great confusion of what to do with religion. He had the religious desire but could not figure out which church was the true church of God because of the great arguments between every sect. In the pressures put on him by the pastors and priests and family members and friends, how could he help but ask the question – But which religion teaches the true doctrine? Which church is the true church of God?
A MEANS WAS PROVIDED.
In the words of Joseph Smith, “I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?” There are two very important parts of that passage that don’t always stick out. First is the word “often” in the first sentence. This was not a one-time thing that suddenly came to mind that spurred the restoration of the gospel. He had been wondering this, possibly for his entire childhood. Second is the last sentence “and how shall I know it?” He did not only have a question, but he did not know how to get it answered. If he were to ask one of the local pastors or priests they would only answer in a way that would profit themselves. Joseph wanted to know the absolute truth.
Because he came from a family with religious background, he did have a copy of the Bible and likely studied it on a regular basis. It was during one of these nights of studying the Holy Bible that the answer came to him. Or rather, the steps were given to him that would eventually give him the answer. He was reading the gospel of James. Verse five of the first chapter of James held the means to getting his answer. Although it was the fifth verse that stuck in his mind, the sixth verse is an important passage to include with the fifth. The fifth verse explains what to do, and the sixth explains how to do it. These verses read as follows, “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. But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed.”
For a while he reflected upon the words of this apostle about asking God his question concerning which church holds the truth. “At length,” he explains, “I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion, or else I must do as James directs.” Again he states, “I at length came to the determination to ‘ask of God.'” As is evident here, he took his time thinking of all the possibilities, not jumping to conclusions, making sure he had all the options.
Just as he took him time to study out the option of prayer in his mind, so he thought about where he would give his prayer, should he do so. He lived in a large family in a small house. He shared a bedroom with his siblings and so to pray in his house would not grant him any privacy. On such a sacred and personal topic, finding a private place is important so that you have no distractions. In time he came to the conclusion to pray in a grove of trees outside the family farm.
AN ANSWER WAS GIVEN.
We don’t know if this is the very first prayer he’s given in his life. Coming from a religious family it is quite possible that he has said prayers with his family, but he does state that this was his first vocal prayer, saying the words out loud. As he began to pray an invisible power overpowered his body to the point where he could not even move his tongue to speak his prayer. Laying there on the ground, darkness began to overtake him as well, but that is when he, as he says, began “exerting all my powers to call upon God to deliver me out of the power of this enemy” and after calling on God for assistance the darkness and unseen power fled, and a bright light began to take its place. Inside this great light were two living personages. One of the beings in the light introduced the second as Jesus the Christ, saying “This is my Beloved Son. Hear him!”
He was not expecting God and Christ to appear to him while he prayed, but his purpose was no less than before. He came to inquire of God which church held the correct doctrine and so that is what he asked them. The Lord answered that no religion on the earth at this time contained the full and correct gospel of God and so he must not join any of them. The Lord further explained 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.'”
Needless to say, he did not join the Presbyterian church like much of his family, and in ten years time he was the man that worked for the Lord on earth that restored the true doctrines and gospel of Jesus Christ on earth.