In the spring of 1820, God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to Joseph Smith as he prayed in a grove of trees near his home in western New York. This event is known as the First Vision. As God had done with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and other prophets, He called Joseph Smith to be a prophet through whom the fulness of the gospel was restored to the earth (Preach My Gospel). I’ve come to know for myself personally that this event took place and that God has a living prophet to lead His true Church today. I’ll share here how I came to know this story to be true.
First Vision Background Story
Ask in Faith
When Joseph was twelve, religious debates swept Palmyra. Although he read little, he liked to think deeply about ideas. He listened to preachers, hoping to learn more about his immortal soul, but their sermons often left him unsettled. They told him he was a sinner in a sinful world, helpless without the saving grace of Jesus Christ. And while Joseph believed the message and felt bad about his sins, he was not sure how to find forgiveness.16
He thought going to church could help him, but he could not settle on a place to worship. The different churches argued endlessly about how people could be free of sin. After listening to these arguments for a while, Joseph was distressed to see people reading the same Bible but coming to different conclusions about its meaning. He believed God’s truth was out there—somewhere—but he did not know how to find it.17
His parents were not sure either. Lucy and Joseph Sr. both came from Christian families and believed in the Bible and Jesus Christ. Lucy attended church meetings and often brought her children with her. She had been seeking the true church of Jesus Christ since the death of her sister many years earlier.
Joseph Sr. also hungered for the truth. But he felt that attending no church at all was preferable to the wrong one. Following the counsel of his father, Joseph Sr. searched the scriptures, prayed earnestly, and believed that Jesus Christ had come to save the world.19 Yet he could not reconcile what he felt to be true with the confusion and discord he saw in the churches around him.
Seeing his parents’ dissatisfaction with local churches only confused Joseph Jr. more.21 His soul was at stake, but no one could give him satisfying answers.
Day and night, Joseph watched the sun, moon, and stars roll through the heavens in order and majesty and admired the beauty of the earth teeming with life. He also looked at the people around him and marveled at their strength and intelligence. Everything seemed to testify that God existed and had created humankind in His own image. But how could Joseph reach Him?24
In the summer of 1819, when Joseph was thirteen, Methodist preachers gathered for a conference a few miles from the Smith farm and spread out across the countryside to spur families like Joseph’s toward conversion. The success of these preachers worried other ministers in the area, and soon competition for converts was intense.
Joseph attended meetings, listened to soul-stirring preaching, and witnessed converts shout for joy. He wanted to shout with them, but he often felt like he was in the middle of a war of words and opinions. “Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together?” he asked himself. “If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?” He knew he needed Christ’s grace and mercy, but with so many people and churches clashing over religion, he did not know where to find it.25
Hope that he could find answers—and peace for his soul—seemed to slip away from him. He wondered how anyone could find truth amid so much noise.26
While attending a sermon, Joseph heard a minister quote from the first chapter of James in the New Testament. “If any of you lack wisdom,” he said, “let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not.”27
Joseph went home and read the verse in the Bible. “Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine,” he later remembered. “It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did.” He had searched the Bible before as if it held all the answers. But now the Bible was telling him he could go directly to God for personal answers to his questions.
Joseph decided to pray. He had never prayed out loud before, but he trusted the Bible’s promise. “Ask in faith, nothing wavering,” it taught.28 God would hear his questions—even if they came out awkwardly.
Joseph rose early on a spring morning in 1820 and set out for the woods near his home. The day was clear and beautiful, and sunlight filtered through the branches overhead. He wanted to be alone when he prayed, and he knew a quiet spot in the woods where he had recently been clearing trees. He had left his ax there, wedged in a stump.1
Finding the place, Joseph looked around to make sure he was by himself. He was anxious about praying out loud and did not want to be interrupted.
Satisfied he was alone, Joseph knelt on the cool earth and began to share the desires of his heart with God. He asked for mercy and forgiveness and for wisdom to find answers to his questions. “O Lord,” he prayed, “what church shall I join?”2
In one account, he described his experience:
“I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me. … 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).
At that moment, a pillar of light appeared over his head. It descended slowly and seemed to set the woods on fire. As the light rested on him, The Spirit of God took its place, filling him with peace and unspeakable joy.
Peering into the light, Joseph saw God the Father standing above him in the air. His face was brighter and more glorious than anything Joseph had ever seen. God called him by name and pointed to another being who appeared beside Him. “This is My Beloved Son,” He said. “Hear Him!”6
Joseph looked into the face of Jesus Christ. It was as bright and glorious as the Father’s.
“Joseph,” the Savior said, “thy sins are forgiven.”7
His burden lifted, Joseph repeated his question: “What church shall I join?”8
“Join none of them,” the Savior told him. “They teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.”
The Lord told Joseph that the world was steeped in sin. “None doeth good,” He explained. “They have turned aside from the gospel and keep not my commandments.” Sacred truths had been lost or corrupted, but He promised to reveal the fullness of His gospel to Joseph in the future.9
As the Savior spoke, Joseph saw hosts of angels, and the light around them blazed brighter than the noonday sun. “Behold, and lo, I come quickly,” the Lord said, “clothed in the glory of My Father.”10
Joseph expected the woods to be devoured by the brilliance, but the trees burned like Moses’s bush and were not consumed.11
Even though many good people believed in Christ and tried to understand and teach His gospel, they did not have the fulness of truth or the priesthood authority to baptize and perform other saving ordinances. They had inherited a state of apostasy as each generation was influenced by what the previous one passed on, including changes in the doctrine and in ordinances such as baptism. As God had done with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and other prophets, He called Joseph Smith to be a prophet through whom the fulness of the gospel was restored to the earth.
After the appearance of the Father and the Son, other heavenly messengers, or angels, were sent to Joseph Smith and his associate Oliver Cowdery. John the Baptist appeared and conferred upon Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery the Aaronic Priesthood, which includes the authority to perform the ordinance of baptism. Peter, James, and John (three of Christ’s original Apostles) appeared and conferred the Melchizedek Priesthood upon Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, restoring the same authority given to Christ’s Apostles anciently. With this priesthood authority, Joseph Smith was directed to organize the Church of Jesus Christ again on the earth. Through him, Jesus Christ called twelve Apostles.
The time in which we live is referred to by Bible prophets as the last days, the latter days, or the dispensation of the fulness of times. It is the period of time just before the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. It is the final dispensation. This is why the Church is named The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
A living prophet directs the Church today. This prophet, the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is the authorized successor to Joseph Smith. He and the present Apostles trace their authority to Jesus Christ in an unbroken chain of ordinations through Joseph Smith.
How I came to know It’s True
How can you know for yourself if the First Vision of Joseph Smith really happened?
First, think of how this event supposedly happened. Joseph studied the scriptures, exercised faith, and prayed to God. We can follow these principles and come to know for ourselves if this event is true.
While I was in the missionary training center, the missionaries memorized Joseph Smith’s part of his story word for word. We recited it to those we taught. But my life changed as I listened to an experienced missionary teaching a new missionary how to tell the story.
The experienced missionary said “When you tell His story of the first vision, pause and go really slow with each phrase starting at “I saw a pillar of light” then when you finish at “hear him” just pause. And wait. That “Hear Him” is an invitation to both you and those you are teaching to Hear God speaking to them in that moment to know that the story is true.
The new missionary was then invited to try it. He began “ I saw a pillar of light exactly….” but then he was cut off by the experienced missionary
“Too fast, try again. Look me in the eyes and say it again”
He started again “I saw a pillar of light..,”
Finally at what seemed like a really slow speech. He was allowed to finish. When he got to “hear Him” the experienced missionary invited him to remain in silence and just stare at him.
“If you’re feeling the spirit. It won’t be awkward”
At first I thought the lesson seemed comical. But I had felt something as I observed this lesson. I wanted to try it for myself.
I went out to our balcony to be alone and imagined myself in front of a someone whom I would tell this story to. I pulled out my scriptures and read Joseph’s account. I thought about how I believed it was true. I then slowly recited the first vision passage.
As I did, I could clearly see in my minds eye the grove Joseph was in, I felt as if I was there with him. I could see what he saw, hear what he heard, and feel what he felt. I never had experienced something like this before. But I knew it was the workings of the Holy Ghost, witnessing of the truth of it to me.
I was in tears and prayed in gratitude for the witness I gained that it was true. This is what I wrote about that experience on that day.
“During Language Study this morning I was practicing the first vision. (Joseph Smith-History 1:16-17). I had it memorized in Portuguese. I was out on the balcony of our apartment, speaking Portuguese out loud to myself as my companions studied inside.
I pretended to be in Brazil, in a home, looking someone in the eye as I taught them it. I started slowly feeling every word “Vi um pilar de luz…” As I continued, I felt the spirit more powerfully. My voice was a weak whisper by the end, but full of emotion as I uttered the last words “Ouve O (Hear Him)’ with tears in my eyes.
Before, I had always believed, or at least hoped, the first vision was true, and a real event. It had always seemed logical. I knew the Book of Mormon was true. But today, out there, alone, speaking my mission language,
I know, as if I had been there myself. I spoke as though I had witnessed it with my eyes and felt the glory of it.
At the end I was able to say “Eu sei que Joseph Smith foi um profeta de Deus” (I know Joseph Smith was a prophet of God)” and mean it, with every fiber of my being. I don’t care if it may sound weird or odd or impossible to some people, I felt the Holy Ghost tell me clearly through my feelings that he did see the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ.
I didn’t need to see a vision or have any form of physical proof. What I felt had a greater impact, and more convincing power than all other things could hope to do. I don’t need proof or a physical witness. What I felt pierced me to the core.
Every time I told Joseph’s story since that day- I have felt the witness again that it’s true. Often the people I told it to did as well.
One of my cherish memories was Daniel and Josey.
A sweet couple that we told the first vision to, they stated- “We know this story is true, for we have seen this light.”
Just months before they were searching for spiritual answers like Joseph was. They fasted and prayed and searched the scriptures. Then one night a light filled their room. At first they were afraid, but then It was accompanied by an immense feeling of peace and the Lord told them He heard their prayers.
They told their pastor of the experience and he said it was of the devil. They were shuned from their church for blasphemy.
Then 2 missionaries arrive (I was one of them) and we tell them a young boy that had a similar experience.
Daniel and Josey knew it was true and were baptized a few weeks later.
How you can come to know
God loves His children, so He provided a convincing way to confirm the truth of this story. It is the Book of Mormon. Let’s take a look at the last two paragraphs in the introduction to the book
“We invite all men everywhere to read the Book of Mormon, to ponder in their hearts the message it contains, and then to ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ if the book is true. Those who pursue this course and ask in faith will gain a testimony of its truth and divinity by the power of the Holy Ghost. (See Moroni 10:3–5.)
Those who gain this divine witness from the Holy Spirit will also come to know by the same power that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world, that Joseph Smith is His revelator and prophet in these last days, and that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the Lord’s kingdom once again established on the earth, preparatory to the Second Coming of the Messiah.”
This message of the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ is either true or it is not. We can know that it is true by the power of the Holy Ghost, as promised in Moroni 10:3–5. Consistent study of the scriptures (particularly the Book of Mormon), regular church attendance, and sincere prayer help us feel the power of the Holy Ghost and discover truth. After reading and pondering the message of the Book of Mormon, any who desire to know the truth must ask our Heavenly Father in prayer in the name of Jesus Christ if it is true.
I’ve also put this promise to the test. I have read, pondered, and ask God if this book is true. I have felt with complete assurance of it’s truthfulness and divine origin. I invite you to do the same.