PALMYRA, New York — This Spring marks 200 years since Joseph Smith’s First Vision, where he says he saw God the Father and His son Jesus Christ appear to him in a grove of trees near his home.
The event is now marked as the beginning of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and current church president Russell M. Nelson asked church members to pay special attention and read Smith’s accounts about it again during this bicentennial year.
Joseph Smith wrote that he had been pondering over religion for quite some time, ever since age 12 or so. When he was 14, he decided to go into the woods to ask about the state of his soul, and which church to join.
Listen to the report
“As historians, we’ve been looking to 2020 for quite some time,” says church historian Spencer McBride.
“I am aware this is a story about a young boy in western New York. But it transcends time and space. People all over the world hear this story and it means something to them,” he said.
McBride hosted The Joseph Smith Papers First Vision Podcast and has heard from people all over the world who listened to it and connected with it.
“When we think about the human experience and Joseph’s questions, they are not a lot different than what we ask today. His desire to connect with heaven is same today,” said McBride.
As a church general area 70 for North America Northeast, Elder Marc Clay sees that worldwide impact first hand.
“Buses come from all over… Often times you’ll see them talking as they go into the grove and [they come out] in a silent quiet reverence when they come out of the grove as they’ve taken a few minutes to feel the spirit that’s there and ponder on the magnitude what’s happened,” said Elder Clay.
One scholar and speaker on the First Vision, BYU church history professor Steven Harper, says he hears from people all the time about what the First Vision means for them. Like a woman from Taiwan who told him after a fireside how she got her testimony by listening to Joseph Smith’s story.
“That experience is archetypal…it is the epitome of our search for truth–Joseph Smith, seeking the God of love, and receiving revelation — it epitomizes how Saints think about God, about the nature of our own agency, about the accessibility of revelation, about how we know what we know,” said Harper.
His colleague at BYU Anthony Sweat also addressed that idea.
“It’s so powerful because, in one story, it’s the archetype of our lives. We are trying to overcome darkness and forces, we try to reach to heaven, we feel weak, God reaches out to us, he tells us he loves us, and opens heaven to us,” said Sweat.
Melissa Smith teaches early-morning seminary in the Rochester New York area, right in the heart of where the restoration started.
“I feel that is one of the things Joseph Smith got out of the First Vision, is the knowledge that God hears him. I want the youth to know God hears them, he is working in their lives. He is working on a grand scale, but he won’t let anyone fall through the cracks,” she said.
BYU professor of ancient scripture Kerry Muhlestein agrees.
“The Father knows the concerns of this boy, and he will answer those concerns,” he said. “I hope more than anything, we come away with a vision of how God cares for his children, that He Himself would come and start the process to bring us all home.”
Elder Clay says he hopes people around the world ponder on the “awesome, basic event” of the First Vision.
“That a young boy, age 14, with limited education, like each of us at some point in life, is searching to find answers,” he said.
KSL NewsRadio’s Mary Richards will have much more on the First Vision Bicentennial from upstate New York in our special coverage during General Conference on KSL NewsRadio.
“It started with Joseph, but it ends with us. Individually it does. It carries back into our own lives.”
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