School of the Prophet: Joseph Smith Learns the First Principles, 1820-1830 (Hardcover)
“One consistent way the Lord teaches us doctrine is by giving us life experiences that encourage us to seek and practice truth. Dr. Richard Bennett, a seasoned historian, illuminates this process through the life and teachings of Joseph Smith. A fascinating perspective on important years in Church history.” &mdash Virginia H. Pearce, Educator and Best-selling Author
“Professor Richard Bennett combines the curiosity and precision of a superb historian with an excellent knowledge of the restored gospel. The result is a singular contribution to Latter-day Saint literature — readers will never see the early years of the Restoration in the same way.” &mdash Robert L. Millet, Professor of Religious Education, Brigham Young University
Between that crisp spring morning in 1820 when he knelt in prayer in a secluded grove of trees and April 6, 1830, when he organized the Church of Jesus Christ, the youthful Joseph Smith learned how to be a prophet.
In a glorious time of intense preparation and careful instruction, he was taught by the Father and the Son, the Holy Ghost, and angelic messengers from previous gospel dispensations. It was essential that the message of the gospel be learned and lived by the messenger of the gospel.
Drawing upon a fascinating combination of new historical research, scriptural insights, and prophetic statements, historian Richard E. Bennett documents how these early years of the Restoration were a divinely inspired apprenticeship, a careful schooling in matters of deep and lasting importance for the young man called to open the dispensation of the fulness of times.
In School of the Prophet: Joseph Smith Learns the First Principles, Dr. Bennett shows us how Joseph Smith, the first convert and initial student of this “marvelous work and a wonder” (Isaiah 29:14), was taught by heavenly beings, refined in the fires of adversity, and firmly grounded in the saving principles and ordinances of the gospel.
The preparation of the Prophet, including the translation and publication of the Book of Mormon and the restoration of priesthood authority, took time.
And nothing was left to chance.
Table of Contents
1. And Thus by Faith, They Did Lay Hold upon Every Good Thing
2. The Office of Their Ministry Is to Call Men unto Repentance
3. I Know the Door: Baptism by Immersion for the Remission of Sins
4. Have Ye Received the Holy Ghost?
5. Hold Out Faithful: The Doctrine of Enduring to the End
- Size: 176
- Pages: 176
- Published: 2010
About the Author
Richard E. Bennett is a professor of Church history and doctrine and Church history editor for BYU Studies at Brigham Young University. He is a well-respected career historian who has written several books and numerous articles on nineteenth-century Latter-day Saint history.
Born in Ontario, Canada, he holds a Ph.D. in American history from Wayne State University. Before joining the BYU faculty in 1997, he was head of the Department of Archives and Special Collections at the University of Manitoba for twenty years.
Brother Bennett has served in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a stake president, stake mission preside, and regional director of public affairs. He and his wife, Patricia, are the parents of five children.
AND THUS BY FAITH,THEY DID LAY HOLD UPON EVERY GOOD THING
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.
The boy prophet Joseph Smith, unschooled in the religions of man, and his account of the First Vision demand our careful scrutiny. It is true that he lacked wisdom and that after reading from the Bible (James 1:5) he decided to pray and ask God which of all the churches was true. It had been prophesied that the Lord would one day raise up such a prophet to bring his people “to the knowledge of the covenants which I have made with [their] fathers” (2 Nephi 3:7). Likewise, in the economy of heaven, Joseph was foreordained to his work, and God, “knowing the calamity which should come upon the inhabitants of the earth,” called upon his servant and “gave him commandments” (D&C 1:17).1 Yet it is also true that faith precedes the miracle and that arguably the greatest miracle of the Restoration—the appearance of the Father and the Son to the boy prophet in 1820—required a demonstration of great faith. Thus our purpose will be to show that Joseph Smith was prepared and taught the first principle of the gospel before he experienced the First Vision of the Restoration.
“Without Faith It Is Impossible to Please Him”
President J. Reuben Clark Jr. is reported to have said: “Faith is the antidote of fear, the eye that sees the invisible, the ear that hears the inaudible, the touch that feels the untouchable, the act that accomplishes the impossible.”
If faith is a principle of power, then faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is a principle of hope, redemption, and eternal salvation. The apostle Paul described faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Alma, when confronting a faithless Korihor—who had dismissed faith as “a foolish and a vain hope” and “a belief of things which are not so” (Alma 30:13, 16)—called on him and all others to “give place” for an “experiment” with faith, if only to desire to obtain it. This “true seed” of faith, if nurtured in earnest prayer and fervent hope, will begin to be discernible, will “swell within your breasts . . . [until] it beginneth to enlarge [the] soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten [the] understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious.” Alma then asked, “Is not this real?” (Alma 32:28, 33, 35). One might argue, therefore, that faith is neither foolishness nor “the effect of a frenzied mind” (Alma 30:16) but the ultimate reality.
Faith transcends emotions and is not a mere idle belief; rather, it is an attribute, a feeling, a reality of spiritual light and yearning hope, a force and a knowledge that quicken the mind while activating the soul. The Prophet Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon, in their Lectures on Faith, described it as “the principle of action in all intelligent beings.”2 Elder James E. Talmage said, “Faith is vivified, vitalized, living belief” that, even more than a mere possession of knowledge, changes our evil natures. And as one draws closer to God through faith, confidence in him increases, faith grows, and life trends ever upward.3 Like a planted seed, faith can be discerned as it grows within, and when rooted in and pointed toward Christ, faith refines, elevates, educates, and transforms the soul. It is the principle of action and means by which we approach the divine, for “without faith it is impossible to please him” (Hebrews 11:6). It encompasses, as the prophet Ether wrote, “a more excellent hope” (Ether 12:32) filled with trust, foresight, and confidence, inevitably inspiring one to greater righteousness and obedience, whatever the cost. And because faith in Christ and sin are opposites, to sin knowingly is to “deny the faith” (D&C 42:23; 63:16).
A formidable mystery to the unbelieving, faith in Christ is the very opposite of gullibility, blind acceptance, or vacant hope. It is the very source of power to endure and overcome incredible pain, unwanted affliction, untold sorrows, nagging doubts, and intellectual scorn and derision, giving assurances when answers to the greatest questions of life and death seem nowhere to be found. Faith stands resolute, resilient, and resistant in the face of life’s many wrongs, profound injustices, and cruel disappointments. It stands undaunted, unbowed, unyielding—the very rock and foundation of the Christian soul.
And faith cannot be unanswered. Of this truth the apostle Paul wrote: “By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain. . . . By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death. . . . By faith Noah . . . prepared an ark. . . . By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac. . . . By faith Isaac blessed Jacob. . . . By faith Moses . . . refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. . . . By faith . . . the prophets . . . subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. Women received their dead raised to life again: and others were tortured . . . stoned . . . sawn asunder . . . slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented. (Of whom the world was not worthy:). . . . And these all, having obtained a good report through faith” (Hebrews 11:4–39).
Faith in Jehovah, the Man of Galilee and the risen Christ, is the activating force for good one reads about in the Old and New Testaments, in the Book of Mormon, and in all other scripture. It is the kind of faith that is most fulfilling, redeeming, and healing. To have this kind of faith, one must know, as Joseph Smith taught, that God actually exists, and one must have a “correct idea of his character, perfections, and attributes” and “an actual knowledge that the course of life which one is pursuing is according to his will.”4 By this kind of faith, the woman “diseased with an issue of blood twelve years” was healed by earnestly touching the hem of her Master’s cloak (Matthew 9:20), Peter walked upon the sea (Matthew 14:29), the daughter of Jairus was raised from the dead (Mark 5:40–43), blind Bartimaeus received his sight (Mark 10:46–52), and Enos received a forgiveness of his sins (Enos 1:1–8). The Lord then said to Enos, “Whatsoever thing ye shall ask in faith, believing that ye shall receive in the name of Christ, ye shall receive it” (Enos 1:15).
There is a faith unto knowledge, a faith unto healing, and a “faith unto repentance” (Alma 34:15–17) that, in requiring the sacrifice of sin, is the power of reclamation and obedience, which eventually lead to a changed life and “a new creature” in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17)—the rebirth the Savior promised his followers. Thus faith is the currency of testimony and the agent and impetus for permanent change and lasting transformation.
And faith leads to prayer and invigorates it, as Joseph Smith learned. Wrote the Prophet Joseph several years after the First Vision: “Remember that without asking we can receive nothing, . . . ask in faith, and ye shall receive such blessings as God sees fit to bestow upon you. Pray not with covetous hearts . . . but pray earnestly for the best gifts—fight the good fight of faith that ye may gain the crown which is laid up for those that endure faithful unto the end of their probation.”5
Latter-day Saints are not alone in recognizing the life-changing power of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Billy Graham, a great evangelist of the twentieth century, spoke of the modern realities of this “‘impossible’ faith—with a God who is, with an Incarnation that is earthly and historical, with a salvation that is at cross-purposes with human nature, with a Resurrection that blasts apart the finality of death—is able to provide an alternative to the sifting, settling dust of death and through a new birth open the way to new life.”6 C. S. Lewis defined this faith as “the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods. . . . Consequently one must train the habit of Faith. . . . Faith in Christ is the only thing to save you from despair . . . and out of that Faith in Him good actions must inevitably come.”7 And Pope Benedict XVI declared: “And only where God is seen does life truly begin. Only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is. We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary. There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ.”8
“Seek and Ye Shall Find”
How heaven began to instill the quality of faith in the boy prophet Joseph Smith is of critical importance to this study. Because the foundation principle of the gospel is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, we would do well to carefully review Joseph’s history for clues as to how he learned this essential quality. His maternal grandfather, Solomon Mack, had for decades lived a life far removed from God, but in his declining years he underwent a remarkable conversion to Christ that changed the entire course and direction of his remaining life. In A Narrative of the Life of Solomon Mack, published in 1811 when Joseph Smith was only six years old, Solomon Mack bore powerful witness that his faith in Christ had changed the moral compass of his life.9 “I prayed to the Lord, if he was with me, that I might know it by this token—that my pains might all be eased for that night. And blessed be the Lord, I was entirely free from pain that night. And I rejoiced in the God of my salvation—and found Christ’s promises verified. . . . Everything appeared new and beautiful. Oh how I loved my neighbors. How I loved my enemies—I could pray for them. . . . The love of Christ is beautiful. There is more satisfaction to be taken in the enjoyment of Christ one day, than in half a century serving our master, the devil.”10
How much influence Solomon had on Joseph Smith is not known; however, Joseph was born on the Solomon Mack farm. And because Solomon did not die until the year of the First Vision, it is likely that grandfather and grandson had more than a few interesting encounters.
There is little question that Solomon Mack tried hard to instill faith in his children in his later years, as though in a belated effort to compensate for lost time. His daughter Lucy Mack, who was always religiously inclined, underwent a remarkable conversion of her own when in the fall of 1802 she lay at death’s door suffering from a “hectic fever.” Covenanting with God “that if he would let me live, I would endeavor to get that religion that would enable me to serve him right, whether it was in the Bible or wherever it might be found,” she heard a voice declare, “Seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. Let your heart be comforted.” Lucy regained her health and reestablished her covenants and conviction of a personal Savior. Like her father Solomon, she too was never the same afterward and tried hard to instill faith in the Lord Jesus Christ in all her posterity through scripture reading, attending the local Presbyterian church, having personal prayer, and crediting the source of the miracles in her life.11
Her husband, Joseph Smith Sr., was prayerful and hardworking, though not an avid churchgoer or member of any particular denomination. He did not “embrace . . . the institutional religion of his time,” but he believed in God. If his wife’s account is accurate, he was a man prone to visions and dreams. His first came in Royalton, Vermont, in 1811. In one such dream his “guide,” or attendant spirit, spoke of a tree in a barren field filled with delicious fruit of which he beckoned his family to come and partake. On the side was a spacious building representing the proud and haughty. Such dreams are reminiscent of Lehi’s dream in the Book of Mormon and intimately prepared him to believe in the validity and authenticity of communicating with God in diverse ways.12
Joseph’s older brothers, Alvin and Hyrum, were also young men of simple faith. In fact, just before Alvin died in 1823, he said to his younger brother: “I want you to be a good boy and do everything that lies in your power to obtain the record [the Book of Mormon]. Be faithful in receiving instruction and in keeping every commandment that is given you.”13
In addition to learning faith near the fireside of his home, Joseph may likewise have gleaned it from the several preachers of his day and from those who came to hear them and whose lives were changed for good. Near his home in his early teenage years were a great cluster and chorus of competing religions in a revival of Christianity that so convulsed his part of upstate New York that it was long afterward called “The Burned-Over District.” Religionists of the various faiths so hotly disagreed on several key points of doctrine that they lost their good feelings for each other in what Joseph later called “a strife of words and a contest about opinions” (Joseph Smith–History 1:6).
Nevertheless, many of his neighbors were men and women of great faith and spiritual conviction, and the lessons the preachers taught of faith in Christ profoundly influenced many and led to an intense spiritual awakening. No doubt some of their lessons and convictions, as well as the spiritual experiences of their listeners, sank deep into Joseph’s naturally faith-filled heart as he “attended their several meetings as often as occasion would permit” (Joseph Smith–History 1:8). In his formative years Joseph probably listened to some of the most passionate Bible-based lessons and sermons one could ever hope to hear, and partly because of them, he yearned for the salvation of his soul.
A close examination into the nature of the revivals near Palmyra in 1820 does reveal “a strife of words” and “a contest about opinions” (Joseph Smith–History 1:8); however, not all the revivals were of the circus variety, full of zealous sermonizing, converts barking up trees or baying like dogs, and women swooning in trancelike devotion. Most of the revivals took on the personality and character of the dominant minister. And in the spring of 1820, one such prominent Presbyterian divine was the respected Reverend Asahel Nettleton of Connecticut (assisted by the Reverend Halsey A. Wood), whose travels through the areas west of Albany in late 1819 took the form of a quiet religious reformation.
Preaching in Albany, Schenectady, Saratoga Springs, Ballston, West Galway, Cooperstown, Utica, and rural areas perhaps as far west as Rochester, Nettleton directed his listeners to nearby groves to pray in faith and find hope of salvation. His revivals lasted several weeks and were also characterized by Sabbath sermon meetings in which he taught the awful condition of the fallen and unrepentant soul. These were followed up by “inquiry meetings,” “domestic visits,” and “family visitations,” mainly by devoted women to individual homes for teaching family and individualized prayer, the urgent need to accept Christ as one’s personal Savior, and scripture study. The conviction of these religionists was that faith was better instilled by the fireside of the home or cabin than from the pulpit. Thus these revivals took on an intimate, pressing, and personal glow.14
In the heart of these revivals—almost always held in the wintertime in such northern climes as New York when fields lay cold and dormant—“anxious meetings” were held almost every night in churches, schools, barns, or any other place large enough to accommodate yearning audiences of anxious sinners seeking salvation. “All the meetings were crowded and solemn. There was no tumult, no noise. Every thing was still, though every mind seemed filled with the magnitude of the work. . . . So profound was the stillness, that a recent death could have added nothing to it, in many families. Common conversation was rarely engaged in, and every ear was open to hear the gospel. . . . The people seemed never weary of attending. . . . They would flock together during all the inclemencies of the season, and listen, when met, with so deep and profound an attention, that in a room crowded to overflowing, it would almost seem you might hear a pin drop or the beating of a watch. The stillness, at times, seemed to have something like mystery about it; it was sublime, it was awful; you almost seemed to be in eternity. . . . Some of the most signal convictions seem to have been wrought by the Spirit in these circumstances.”15
Nor did the bitter cold of that particular New York winter hold them back. “Our evening meetings [February 1820] were still more thronged, and in the coldest evenings of an unusually severe winter, many assembled who were not able to obtain admittance to our school houses, and have been seen to raise the windows and stand without in devout attention to the word of God.”16
Wrote another observer of those 1820 upstate New York revivals: “Sometimes, sleigh loads of convinced sinners, after leaving the meeting, and riding half a mile, or a mile, homewards would turn back again to the place of prayer, to hear still more about the salvation of Jesus! And they often did this too, through lanes and ways and snows, that would have been deemed by persons in any other state of mind, to have been impassable.”17 They listened, prayed, and forswore their misdeeds in profound wintry silence, their lives often changed forever in a solemn, dual conviction of sin and guilt on the one hand and a commitment to serve a forgiving Lord and Master on the other.
Such times of “refreshing showers of divine grace” and spiritual “restitution” of preaching, visiting, singing, and covenanting all centered on the faithful reading of scripture. And young Joseph Smith’s impressions in reading the Epistle of James were in accord with the design of such revivals. As one contemporary observed, “Generally the first dawning of comfort, in the soul, has been through the application of precious bible truths, while reading the bible, or hearing it explained, or while in the act of secret prayer.”18 The result of such revivals—Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Congregational—was the spiritual conversion of thousands, which usually occurred one at a time in small groups of believers.
Many are the accounts of youth retiring to their own secret groves to pray. Wrote one Reverend Jesse Braman, a Baptist preacher of an 1818–19 revival in Ontario County, near Palmyra: “This part of the wilderness seemed alive for one year. The woods rang with the songs of young converts, and backsliders wept among the trees.”19 Wrote another of the effect of revivals upon the youth in Connecticut in 1817: “Formerly, the children had been accustomed to resort for their juvenile recreations in the hours of play, to a certain grove, in which was a pond of water. Through the whole of last winter they resorted to the same spot; not to engage in youthful sports, but to implore the mercy of Heaven on themselves and their companions.”20
And young women were as prone to having these experiences as were young men: “One evening towards twilight, a number of young girls, from about eleven to fourteen years of age were very merrily at play on the broad steps of the Baptist meeting house, and of a sudden without visible cause, they were struck with solemn awe, and retired with sighs and sobs, to a house where they spent the evening in reading the Bible, and other good books. Some of these children . . . eventually obtained a comfortable hope, and were baptized.”21
Thus not only were there many revivals in the region near where Joseph Smith lived in 1820 but the nature of his faithful saga was very much in historical agreement with what others were experiencing, although the results were profoundly different.22 These wintry revivals were characterized sometimes by argument but also by the “solemnities of eternity,” of the Bible being central to conversion and by similarly aged young men and women seeking through faith the salvation of their souls (D&C 43:34). Whatever else one might say about Joseph’s accounts, his experience was very much part of the revival culture of his time and place, historically credible and defensible.
“And I Bring Forth My Word unto the
Children of Men”
If family, personal experience, revivals, and ministerial sermons contributed to the development of young Joseph’s faith, so also did his study of the holy scriptures. The coming forth of the Book of Mormon and the faithful preservation and dissemination of the Holy Bible—even to the very threshold of the Smith family farm—were both essential components in the unfolding drama of the Restoration.
With all its flaws, the Bible was the “book of the Lamb of God” promised to come forth unto the remnant of the seed of Israel (1 Nephi 13:38). “And I bring forth my word unto the children of men, yea, even upon all the nations of the earth” (2 Nephi 29:7). The eventual uniting of this “stick of Judah” with the “stick of Joseph” so that they “shall become one in thine hand” (Ezekiel 37:19) could not have happened had not the Bible also come forth. “Wherefore they both shall be established in one” (1 Nephi 13:41).
The rise of the Holy Bible is a miracle in its own right. A modern readership may take for granted the availability of holy writ, but in the early 1800s Bibles were not at all plentiful on the American frontier. In the years immediately leading up to the First Vision, something quite remarkable occurred that went far to create a Bible culture in the West—an awareness and widespread popular ownership of the Bible that had not existed before. The Bible had been printed and been in circulation for centuries, but it was only in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that it finally began to be printed in vast quantities and distributed worldwide into the hands of millions who previously were too poor to own their own copy.
The spark that ignited the modern Bible movement was a desperate lack of Bibles in northern Wales most poignantly felt by a “sweet Welsh maiden.” Since 1791 Wales had been experiencing a religious awakening, and among the converts was a girl about ten years of age named Mary Jones. She walked two miles every Saturday to a relative’s home to read from the nearest Bible. Over the next several years, she saved enough money to finally purchase her own. At age seventeen, she walked twenty-eight miles barefoot to buy her first Bible from the Reverend Thomas Charles. As the popular story goes, “He reached her a copy, she paid him the money, and there [they] stood, their hearts too full for utterance, and their tears streaming from their eyes.”23
Inspired by the young girl’s devotion, the Reverend Charles traveled to London in 1802 in quest of ten thousand Welsh Bibles from the almost moribund Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, an Anglican Bible society that dated from 1698.24 Its representatives “questioned, doubted, and declined” his request. He then approached the London Missionary Society and the Religious Tract Society. The Reverend Joseph Hughes of the latter group wondered why no vibrant Bible society existed. Subsequently, he and the Reverend Charles, along with William Wilberforce, the Reverend C. Steinkopf, John Owen, and some three hundred others, organized the “Society for Promoting a More Extensive Circulation of the Scriptures at Home and Abroad” in March 1804. Quickly renamed the British and Foreign Bible Society, the fledgling organization immediately garnered interdenominational support. Its purpose was “to encourage a wider dispersion of the Holy Scriptures . . . through the British dominions, and . . . to other countries, whether Christian, Mahomedan, or Pagan.”25 In the space of only three years, the Society printed and distributed 1,816,000 copies of the Bible, testaments, and portions thereof in many different countries and in sixty-six different languages.26
Local leaders of various Christian faiths, including some Roman Catholic priests in several areas, began promoting subscriptions, appointing agents, and receiving and filling orders for scriptures. Soon hosts of volunteer “home visitors” and “colporteurs” (traveling salesmen) went from house to house, skirting the traditional bookseller method of distribution. Women served by the thousands at this level, often appointing their own auxiliaries with their own presidents, officers, and appointments. “The Ladies’ Associations were enormously more successful and widespread than those of gentlemen.”27 By 1819 the British and Foreign Bible Society counted 629 such auxiliaries, and in 1820 women home visitors in Liverpool alone made 20,800 Bible visits.28
And what were the results? By 1834 the British and Foreign Bible Society had distributed 8,549,356 copies in 157 different languages.29 By 1965, some 723,000,000 volumes had been issued in 829 languages.30
In America the need for Bibles was no less real and immediate. Until 1780 almost all Bibles in America had been printed in Great Britain. The Puritans had brought with them the Geneva Bible, first published in 1560, with its notes and teachings by John Calvin. Other immigrants brought the Bishop’s Bible, published by the Church of England in 1568.31 But with the suspension of British imports during the American Revolutionary War, there developed a “famine of Bibles,” which was one of the many ills that “a distracted Congress was called upon promptly to remedy.”32 In 1781 Scottish-born Robert Aitken, at the direction of Congress, became America’s first Bible publisher. Isaiah Thomas printed the first folio Bible from an American press ten years later. Quaker Isaac Collins began printing his Bibles, known for their accuracy, that same year. Irish-American Matthew Carey became the best known Bible printer in early America, publishing more than sixty different editions in the early 1800s.33 Partly because of the Second Great Awakening, the formation of Bible societies, and the aim of evangelizing the West, between 1777 and 1820 four hundred new American editions of the Bible and the New Testament were published.34 By 1830 that number had climbed to 700.35
Yet production could not keep up with population. Between 1790 and 1820 America’s population skyrocketed from 3.9 million to 9.6 million, with a large number of Americans not owning their own copies of the Bible. In 1819 the Tennessee Auxiliary Bible Society reported that “the demand is yet great and increasing. The number of the destitute far, very far, surpasses our highest calculations.”36 Even large metropolitan areas such as New York City and Philadelphia were reported as seriously lacking in Bibles.37
Such a scarcity had been the reason for the organization of the Philadelphia Bible Society in 1808 and the organization of the Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York Bible Societies in 1809. Scores of others followed throughout New England and in the South. Finally, in 1816 Elias Boudinot, a former New Jersey delegate to the Continental Congress, presided over the creation of the American Bible Society with forty-two other smaller state and regional societies merged under its expanding banner.38 By 1820, after just four years in operation, the American Bible Society had printed and distributed 231,552 Bibles and New Testaments.39 By 1830 the number stood at 1,084,000.40
Bibles were similarly scarce on the western New York frontier. An 1824 Bible society report from Rochester, New York, indicated that in Monroe County alone, near where the Smith family was living, 2,300 families were without Bibles.41 An 1825 report indicated that at least 20 percent of Ohio families had no Bible, and in thirty-six counties in Alabama, half the citizens did not own scriptures.
Which edition of the Bible ultimately fell into Joseph Smith’s hands is not recorded. Considering the indigent circumstances of his home life, it was probably one of the cheaper King James editions and may not have even been his family’s own copy. But members of the Smith family were the beneficiaries of many men and women of faith who gave their heart and soul, as it were, to the miraculous distribution of the Bible throughout the Western world in the years leading up to the First Vision.
“But Let Him Ask in Faith”
While wondering what his future course of action should be, Joseph one day turned in the Bible to the Epistle of James, chapter 1, his eyes settling upon these life-changing words: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God. . . . But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering” (vv. 5¬–6). Joseph later said that “never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine.” He “reflected on it again and again,” finally deciding to “do as James directs, that is, ask of God” (Joseph Smith–History 1:11–13).
President Henry B. Eyring has emphasized that young Joseph’s faith to ask of God in prayer “came after pondering a scripture which assured him of God’s loving nature. He prayed, as we must, with faith in a loving God. He prayed with the intent not only to listen but to obey. He did not ask only to know the truth. He was committed to act upon whatever God would communicate to him. . . . And because of his faithfulness, in the days and months and years ahead his prayers were answered with a flood of light and truth.”42
And of Joseph’s newfound determination to ask of God, President George Q. Cannon said: “Like a flash of sunlight through lowering clouds, the import of a mighty truth burst upon Joseph’s mind. He had been vainly asking help from men who had answered him out of their own darkness. He determined now to seek assistance from God.”43
Joseph Smith planned to pray as he had never prayed before. “At length,” he said, he “came to the determination to ‘ask of God’” (Joseph Smith–History 1:13)—to have a vocal communication or dialogue with his Heavenly Father in a predetermined place, in a predetermined fashion, and at a predetermined time. This would be no idle or casual effort but rather the carefully constructed attempt of a searching, faithful young boy to reach the God he earnestly believed in. The precise day is not recorded, although it came early in the spring of 1820—at a time in the northern clime when receding snows may still have been on the ground and on a day when his absence would not have been overly conspicuous. We do know the approximate place, however, and we certainly sense from his writings that it was a carefully planned and premeditated effort.
Yet even with all his preparations, as President Gordon B. Hinckley taught, “it was faith, the simple faith of a fourteen-year-old boy, that took him into the woods that spring morning. It was faith that took him to his knees in pleading for understanding. The marvelous fruit of that faith was a vision glorious and beautiful, of which this great work is but the extended shadow.”44 President Stephen L Richards wrote of Joseph’s faith as the great qualifier of the First Vision: “He was young, and he was untutored in the learning of the world, but he was intelligent and he possessed in high degree one of the Lord’s greatest gifts to man, that of sublime faith. He was selected of the Lord because of that implicit faith and the susceptibility of his unspoiled and unsophisticated intelligence to the whisperings of the Holy Spirit and the revelations of divine truth.”45 Thus Joseph was “permitted,” to use President Hinckley’s word, to come into the presence of God that spring day. And why? Because heaven willed it, designed it, and desired it to be.46
The First Vision came not only in response to a young boy’s prayer but also in fulfillment of God’s will: “Wherefore, I the Lord, knowing the calamity which should come upon the inhabitants of the earth, called upon my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and spake unto him from heaven, and gave him commandments” (D&C 1:17; emphasis added). God’s purposes were about to be revealed and unfolded in his own due time and way. As with Paul on the road to Damascus or with Alma the Younger or Moses or Lehi, man’s faith was about to discover its divine author.
Immediately upon opening his mouth, Joseph was “seized upon by some power which entirely overcame [him].” He could not speak, and “thick darkness gathered around [him].” This destructive evil force—“some actual being from the unseen world”—is of great importance (Joseph Smith–History 1:15–16). President Spencer W. Kimball observed: “This budding prophet had no preconceived false notions and beliefs. He was not steeped in the traditions and legends and superstitions and fables of the centuries. He had nothing to unlearn. He prayed for knowledge and direction. The powers of darkness preceded the light. When he knelt in solitude in the silent forest, his earnest prayer brought on a battle royal that threatened his destruction . . . [but] he was protected by the glory of the Lord.”47
Joseph remembered that he was about to “sink into despair and to abandon [himself] to destruction—not to an imaginary ruin, but to the power of some actual being from the unseen world” (Joseph Smith–History 1:16). What was at stake in this “battle royal” was his very life. At that point his planned, premeditated vocal prayer had become an intensely silent and desperate struggle between life and death. “At this moment of great alarm,” his overwhelming concern was probably less about which church he should join than a plea for God’s intervention to save him (Joseph Smith–History 1:16).
It has been said there are no atheists in foxholes. Oftentimes we utter our most powerful, faith-filled prayers on our way into the operating room or at the bedside of cherished loved ones who are sick or dying. Such critical moments demand our most earnest supplications, for when lives are on the line, our prayers can become so intense that they almost bend the walls. And heaven stoops to listen.
Such was the agonizing situation in which Joseph Smith found himself that spring morning in 1820. Unable to speak and doomed to destruction by the “mystery of iniquity” (2 Thessalonians 2:7), he turned to the very one he had come to address, no longer in the spirit of a merely earnest request but in a desperate, faithful pleading for his life. He was now totally dependent upon that God who had brought him there in the first place: “Exerting all my powers [and faith] to call upon God to deliver me out of the power of this enemy which had seized upon me . . . just at this moment of great alarm, I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me. 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!” (Joseph Smith–History 1:16–17).
Filled with joy in this moment of divine deliverance, Joseph recalled regaining possession of himself, gratefully realizing that he was still alive and proposing, perhaps almost sheepishly in the awe-inspiring presence of the Divine, the very question that had brought him there: “Which of all the sects was right . . . and which I should join” (Joseph Smith–History 1:18).
In this school of the prophet, young Joseph learned more about the Godhead—the separate identity and reality of God the Father, his Son, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost—than a thousand books or a multitude of religious professors could ever have taught him. He was answered “that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong” (Joseph Smith–History 1:19). He would subsequently learn that he would be instrumental in the hands of God to bring about the Restoration and much righteousness. Christ did not condemn the people for their faith and many excellent works, but he stated categorically that “all their creeds were an abomination” and their “professors were all corrupt” (Joseph Smith–History 1:19).
The structure of the vision—the appearance of both God the Father and Jesus Christ, one in the express image of the other and each possessing glory beyond description—was itself designed so “that faith also might increase in the earth” (D&C 1:21) among those who would later read Joseph’s account. President George Q. Cannon taught of the coming of God in the First Vision: “Now, it was meant that this knowledge should be restored first of all. It seems so, at least, from the fact that God Himself came; it seems that this knowledge had to be restored as the basis for all true faith to be built upon. There can be no faith that is not built upon a true conception of God our Father. Therefore, before even angels came, He came Himself accompanied by His Son and revealed Himself once more to man upon the earth.”48
Yet for our present purposes, the opening of the heavens taught Joseph a remarkable lesson in faith, one that changed his life forever. He learned that the conjunction of his faith with the purposes of God had made his theophany possible. As President Thomas S. Monson once put it, “When Joseph, the boy prophet, went down upon bended knee to seek the help of Almighty God, that God, the Father, and Jesus, the Son, did not appear until after his faith had been tested.”49
The moment is reminiscent of an ancient Book of Mormon Jaredite prophet who saw not only the finger of God but also his entire person. “Because of thy faith thou hast seen that I shall take upon me flesh and blood; and never has man come before me with such exceeding faith as thou hast. . . . Ye are redeemed from the fall; therefore ye are brought back into my presence; therefore I show myself unto you” (Ether 3:9, 13).
“Their Faith in Their Prayers”
There remains one other venue of faith to explore. Long before Joseph Smith went into the grove near his log cabin home, others centuries earlier had in faith prayed him there. As much as believing Latter-day Saints look upon the First Vision as an event prophesied, foreordained, and predicated upon a young boy’s faith, there was another equation of faith at work in the divine mathematics of the Restoration, one that speaks directly to the gospel perspective on history, agency, and divine intervention in the affairs of humankind.
The pattern is that of the binding, encompassing covenants, or promises, of God that stretch across generations of time. When Enoch cried in faith that God might “have mercy upon Noah and his seed, that the earth might never more be covered by the floods. And the Lord could not withhold” and swore unto Enoch “with an oath, that he would stay the floods. . . . And he sent forth an unalterable decree, that a remnant of his seed should always be found among all nations, while the earth should stand” (Moses 7:50–52). Furthermore, Christ’s second coming in the last days, as much as it has been prophesied, will occur because of a promise made between God and man. “And the Lord said unto Enoch: As I live, even so will I come in the last days, in the days of wickedness and vengeance, to fulfil the oath which I have made unto you concerning the children of Noah” (Moses 7:60).
The Restoration itself came as a result of ancient covenant. One of the few psalms of the Doctrine and Covenants reads as follows:
The Lord hath brought again Zion;
The Lord hath redeemed his people, Israel,
According to the election of grace,
Which was brought to pass by the faith
And covenant of their fathers. (D&C 84:99)
Such a thing as indispensable as the restoration of the gospel and with it the translation of the Book of Mormon, the coming forth of other scriptures, the gathering of Israel in the latter days from the four corners of the earth, the restoration of priesthood powers and keys, and even Christ’s eventual triumphant return—all these things hinged upon more than a young boy’s faith. They also depended upon the lives of great men and women of faith who lived long before. Answers to faithful prayers, particularly those of earlier generations, are one of the means by which God involves himself in the affairs of men.
The coming forth of the Book of Mormon, and by extension the calling and preparation of its translator, came in answer to faith. “This work does contain all those parts of my gospel which my holy prophets, yea, and also my disciples, desired in their prayers should come forth unto this people. And I said unto them, that it should be granted unto them according to their faith in their prayers” (D&C 10:46–47). Thus men and women prayed in such faith that God promised to respond. “Yea, and this was their faith—that my gospel, which I gave unto them that they might preach in their days, might come unto their brethren the Lamanites. . . . Now, this is not all—their faith in their prayers was that this gospel should be made known also, if it were possible that other nations should possess this land; and thus they did leave a blessing upon this land in their prayers, that whosoever should believe in this gospel in this land might have eternal life” (D&C 10:48–50).
Even Joseph’s specific role as curtain-raiser of the Restoration came because of this covenant of faith. According to the writings of Lehi, “Joseph who was carried captive into Egypt . . . obtained a promise of the Lord” that he would “raise up” a “seer” of Joseph’s lineage in the latter days. That seer, named after Joseph, would bring forth “the knowledge of the covenants which I have made with thy fathers.” With the calling of this modern “seer” would eventually come the translation, publication, and dissemination of the Book of Mormon (2 Nephi 3:4–7).
And why? “Because of their [the fathers’] faith their words shall proceed forth out of my mouth unto their brethren who are the fruit of thy loins; and the weakness of their words will I make strong in their faith, unto the remembering of my covenant which I made unto thy fathers.” And because of the assurance he had received from the Lord, Joseph said, “Behold, I am sure of the fulfilling of this promise” (2 Nephi 3:21, 14).
Thus Joseph Smith’s first prayer was preceded by other faithful prayers of earlier prophets and disciples whom God could not but answer “sometime, somewhere.”50 Faithful man’s binding of God is what makes prophecy more certain than history and allows heaven into the picture of what only appears to be divine intervention. “And now, behold, according to their faith in their prayers will I bring this part of my gospel to the knowledge of my people” (D&C 10:52). “And thus by faith, they did lay hold upon every good thing” (Moroni 7:25).
The first principle of the gospel—faith in the Lord Jesus Christ—was abundantly taught in the First Vision of the Restoration to its first student and apprentice prophet. Among so many other glorious truths taught that spring day, this principle will ever remain one of the great legacies of the Sacred Grove. Since so much of the oncoming Restoration would depend upon the young man charged to bring it forth, nothing would be left to chance, especially something so critical as learning the principle of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. When he returned to the family cabin later that day, he said to his faithful mother, “All is well. . . . I have learned for myself that Presbyterianism is not true” (Joseph Smith–History 1:20).
Joseph Smith had learned more about God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, and their literal dual reality and separate identity than perhaps any other person then alive. He returned from the grove knowing well enough not to join with the ministers of his day. Their faithful yearnings and solemn strivings had found in his vision their finest fulfillment. And Joseph returned home knowing more about himself than we may realize. His faith in Christ, the earnest expectation and fervent hope that demands response, coupled with the faith of prophets long before, had opened the heavens. It was a lesson that would serve him well for the mission with which he was now entrusted.