PALMYRA, New York — Leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints marked the bicentennial of the First Vision of Joseph Smith with a special session at the faith’s 190th Annual General Conference in Salt Lake City.
But ahead of that historic celebration, KSL traveled back to Palmyra, New York to see how the Sacred Grove has changed in the last 200 years.
Dating the First Vision of Joseph Smith
Latter-day Saint faithful believe a young Joseph Smith prayed in a grove in upstate New York, and saw God the Father and Jesus as two distinct persons in a vision, an event now known as his First Vision. They believe it marks the founding of their faith.
Some scholars believe March 26,1820, could have been the day the then-14-year-old future church leader experienced that vision.
The researchers used weather data and extrapolations to chose March 26.
“Joseph Smith would have been working too hard tapping sugar maple trees to have gone to the woods to pray until the temperature got right, and he’d have free time and the first day would have been the 26,” says BYU church history professor Steven Harper.
But Harper says there are a lot of “ifs” involved in that.
“The only date in the historical record, is ‘on a beautiful clear day early in the spring of 1820,’” he said, quoting Joseph Smith’s words.
Harper said he doesn’t give much credence to dating the vision, because to him, the exact date isn’t as important as the actual event.
Revisiting the Sacred Grove
The Sacred Grove in March 2020 has brown and bare trees as winter turns to spring, with spots of green moss on the trunks. It looks as it might have when Joseph Smith prayed in the trees in early spring 1820.
When Joseph came into the woods, he was seeking answers to his questions about the state of his soul, and which church to join.
“I think of 1832 version. It was raw, never published. And here we get a young boy wanting to connect with heaven, wanting forgiveness for his sins. That speaks to me a lot for the core of the religious experience,” said church historian Spencer McBride. He works with the Joseph Smith Papers Project.
What the First Vision means to church members
“In different times in our lives, or to a different audience, we will naturally change parts of the story. If you have rehearsed what you want to say, you will always say the same thing,” said BYU professor of ancient scripture Kerry Muhlestein. “You can tell the audience affects him with what’s going on in his life.”
“At first, it is personal redemption for a teenager. Later, it is the beginning story of the restored church. Those are not at odds with each other,” said Harper.
A vision for anyone
Jennette Cooney from Virginia was one of a few people visiting the Sacred Grove on a windy March day.
“In your own home, you can have those same experiences. It doesn’t have to be where Joseph Smith saw. That’s a big takeaway for us. We can have that same spirit in our home, and we can receive revelation in our own lives, just as Joseph Smith did,” she said.
McBride goes as often as he can.
“I walk quietly in the Sacred Grove. It’s a sacred space for me. But even those who don’t follow our religion can understand and appreciate what happened there. Whether you believe it or not, it symbolizes man’s yearning to connect to heaven. There’s something universal there,” he said.
A local event with worldwide impact
Current church president Russell M. Nelson asked members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to pay special attention and read Smith’s accounts about the First Vision once again during this bicentennial year.
“As historians, we’ve been looking to 2020 for quite some time,” says 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.
As host of The Joseph Smith Papers First Vision Podcast, McBride says he 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.
The bicentennial in Palmyra
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.
Harper, the BYU church history professor, 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.
“He is working on a grand scale”
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.
Inspiring art even today
Far from Palmyra, a 9 1/2 foot by 6 foot hooked rug hangs on the dining room wall of Jennifer Doyle’s home in Provo. It depicts a 14-year-old Joseph Smith praying in the Sacred Grove before his First Vision.
Doyle made it by hand.
“I was feeling like I needed to do something with my craft that was meaningful. And that was the thought that came to my head,” she said.
She hand-dyed the fabric, cut it into strips, and pulled each strip through the holes in the canvas.
“My kids saw me dragging the large heavy project around the house for 5 years. They saw me carrying it around. I worked on it while they practiced piano or ate breakfast or watched a movie. It was part of our life, and gave me the opportunity to say how important it was for me,” said Doyle.
Doyle says this project strengthened her testimony of Joseph Smith.
“I just found myself, as I was trying to do these worn-looking pants, thinking about those pants kneeling and asking God. I thought about, what would his face look like, or how were his hands.”
The hooked rug, visible from Doyle’s front door, became a conversation piece for visitors to their home, and a way for Doyle to talk about Joseph Smith in new ways with her family and others.
Artist Anthony Sweat’s painting, “The First Visions,” shows a column of yellow fire coming down, rather than the soft white light usually seen in other depictions.
“Multiple accounts use that word, fire. So I wanted in my image to depict more yellow old testament type of fire. Orson Pratt says Joseph thought the whole grove would be consumed,” said Sweat.
His work, on display right now at the BYU Harold B. Lee Library, is called “The First Visions” rather than “The First Vision,” Sweat says, because he took inspiration from all nine accounts.
The painting shows the Father turning to introduce the Son, and angels in the background, which Joseph mentioned in different accounts. There’s also a dark line in the left corner showing Satan being cast out.
“There are only a few paintings that depict the adversary to Joseph’s prayer,” said Sweat.
There have been many paintings, drawings, sculptures and even stained glass windows done of the First Vision.
Sweat says many church members are used to seeing similar artwork. It’s become symbolized to them as a boy in a white shirt and brown pants in a pose looking up at two beings.
Video depictions over the years also show a green and leafy grove. Joseph Smith says he went to pray in early spring, when the grove was probably more brown and barren.
Sweat says that’s the drawback of art.
“It helps us learn, but also limits our learning if we rely too heavily on artistic expression,” he said. “That’s why we also need to get into the actual words of Joseph in his official accounts and contemporary accounts.” Those accounts can be read at the Joseph Smith Papers Project or in the Gospel Library.
But art does help people connect with the place where the restoration began, especially when they can’t go to the sacred grove historic site themselves.
Learning about the First Vision
Other church members are also learning more about the 1820 event through books, firesides, articles, lectures and podcasts.
Sheena Perron, who runs the Facebook group, “Seek Christ Daily” from her home in Idaho, says she and her teenage daughter listened to the First Vision Podcast on their drives. And it led to discussions about the gospel.
“At times we can get down on ourselves. But one of the biggest things we can do is pray ourselves, and then look for opportunities to teach our children. Those little moments go so much further. You are bearing your testimony, you are sharing your thoughts with your family,” she said.
Doyle gives away prints of her first vision scene to people, like primary children and missionaries, to have with them or hang on their walls. She says others can find different ways to teach about the First Vision.
“It doesn’t have to be this one big thing you do,” Doyle said. “Parents can say one thing they’ve read or thing they loved about the whole restoration of the gospel. That makes the whole difference for children.”
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