Joseph Smith's Revelations

The story Smith told of his first, astonishing vision and the visions/revelations that came after became the anchors for the Mormon faith and what devout Mormons believe happened.

Jon Butler
Jon Butler is dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Yale University and a professor of American history.

Smith came out of an extraordinary spiritual hothouse that was the result of the American Revolution -- an unintended result, but a result nonetheless. Why? Because Americans were freed by the First Amendment of the federal Constitution to create their own religion aside from the government, aside from the state. It produced exceptional results. It revivified religion in America. It led to revivals; it led to visions created by many kinds of revivalists, especially Methodist itinerants who created their visits to heaven, their visits to hell, and they discussed Methodism with their potential converts in the 1810s and '20s.

So Smith's enunciation of visions in his own world, his reception of revelations that created the Book of Mormon, was not particularly unusual. Smith was also not unusual in his organizational genius. He, in fact, was a latecomer in the world of organization, but he perfected it by following the example of Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, all of whom developed extraordinary organizational schemes to boost the place of their own religious groups inside 19th-century American society. ...

And it was a modern America; it was a plural America; it was a visionary America; it was a difficult America; it was a contentious America. All of these groups competed with each other. They competed for attention; they competed for religious space; they competed for visionary acumen; they competed to define who they were as a people. And in many regards they succeeded, because by the time of the Civil War, America was a society in which religion was more powerful rather than less powerful than it had been at the time of the American Revolution. ...

Daniel Peterson
Daniel Peterson is a Brigham Young University professor and the author of many articles and books on LDS doctrine.

... Foundational to the church and to my own testimony of Mormonism is the story of the First Vision of Joseph Smith. It's a story that comes out of a very concrete, historical family situation. You have Joseph Smith, who's only 14. I think that really needs to be kept in mind; he's very young. Joseph is in a community that's riven with religious disputes. There are competing revivals or tent meetings, camp meetings, going on around the community. ... Everyone is talking about it. It invades his own family, with what impact we can only guess on a young boy whose own family is divided religiously. So he is existentially gripped in a certain way [by] which church is right. It's not just a matter of intellectual interest for him; he's really worried about this. He goes into a grove of trees near his home, and he begins to pray. He's learned from looking in the New Testament that you can ask of God, and God will answer.

I'm certain that Joseph didn't expect the answer he got. He was hoping for a little nudge in the direction of one Protestant group or another. But he's praying in the grove, and he notices a light coming from the sky above him and descending toward the trees. He describes how intense the light was and how afraid he was that when it touched the trees they would burst into flame. He was actually scared. This is not a reassuring moment, I think.

... In that pillar of light appear, according to his account, two persons: the Father and the Son, as he introduces them. The Father introduces the Son, and the Son, Jesus, the resurrected Jesus Christ, then speaks to Joseph Smith, and in effect calls him to be a prophet, though I don't think he necessarily recognized that that is what it was at the time. He was looking for a couple of things. In that revivalistic environment, he was looking for the forgiveness of his own sins. ... He was also worried, though, which way he should go religiously: his mother leaning toward the Presbyterians, staying aloof from any of the churches, probably denounced as something of an infidel by some of the revivalists; he's worried about his father's own salvation. He's worried about all these things. And he gets an answer that far transcends what he had wanted, what he had sought. ...

Could you tell ... the other foundational story, which is the Angel Moroni appearing to him -- and the plates? ...

... Years have passed. He hasn't been living the way he ought to have been. He says, I haven't been guilty of serious sins, but after all, I have had a visitation from God; I ought to have been behaving a little more seriously than I was. But remember, he's still a teenager. ... And he tells the story of seeing this light appearing in his room, and an angel appears in his room and identifies himself as Moroni and says that he's going to reveal to Joseph a record -- that becomes the Book of Mormon -- that's hidden in a hill not far from his home. That vision is repeated three times in the course of the night, with slight variations. ...

The next day ... he has a similar vision again, where Moroni appears to him again, tells him to tell his father. He goes back and tells him. One of the striking things about the story is that his father believes him. The family was inclined to be religiously believing. They also, I think, had long experience with Joseph and knew him to be a truthful boy. ...

Joseph then goes to that spot on the hill -- it's not far from where the Smith family farm was -- and he locates the place there on the hill, and the plates are under a rock, which he'd seen very clearly in the vision. He gets a lever and tries to raise the rock. He sees the plates, and his first thought, to his shame -- and I think it's to his credit that he tells the story honestly -- his first thought seeing the plates was, "We're going to be rich." His family had been subsistence farmers for years. They'd always been on the edge of survival, and when he sees this, he immediately thinks -- as any of us would -- "What a treasure."

Well, that is obviously not the response that was desired, and he's rebuked for that. He doesn't get to get the plates then. He has to come back every year, at the same time of the year, for several years, until he gets the plates in the 1820s and begins the translation process. But during that period, apparently, he receives a series of tutorials from the angel. We know he was visited by a number of angelic beings possibly during that time. In some cases we don't know the details, but it's clear that he's being groomed for this role. He had to mature; he had to grow up in order to do it. ...

How were these plates translated? ... [S]et the scene for us, how you imagine what happened from the various accounts you've read.

The plates of the Book of Mormon were translated in a sense by Joseph Smith and in a sense not by Joseph Smith. Joseph didn't have the capacity to translate any modern or ancient language, certainly, at that time. A little bit later on he'll learn some Hebrew and some German -- not much, but a little bit. But the translation occurred by supernatural means, far beyond his capacity to do it.

There were a couple of means that were prepared for this. One was that he used an instrument that was found with the plates that was called the Urim and Thummim. This is kind of a divinatory device that goes back into Old Testament times. Actually, most of the translation was done using something called a seer stone. The seer stone is obviously something like the Urim and Thummim. It seems to be a stone that was found in the vicinity, and I can't say exactly how it would have worked. It may have been a kind of a concentrating device or a device to facilitate concentration. He would put the stone for most of the concentration period in the bottom of a hat, presumably to exclude surrounding light. Then he would put his face into the hat. It's kind of a strange image for us today, but it sort of makes sense if you think of a computer screen, I suppose: You don't want to be looking at [anything] against a bright background; it hurts your eyes. ... He would read off what he saw in the stone, apparently in passages of about 25 to 35 words. ...

President Gordon B. Hinckley
President Gordon B. Hinckley is the 15th president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He has led the church since March 1995.

Our film [features] a very strong statement you made. You are talking about the foundational story of Mormonism and why it must be taken literally, that Joseph Smith had the vision he described and obtained the plates the way he did. You said there is no middle ground. Other churches are approaching their foundational stories and turning them into metaphor at times and going perhaps for the essence of the meaning. But that isn't true for you or for this church. I'm wondering if you can develop that idea. Why can't there be a middle ground in the way those foundational stories are understood?

Well, it's either true or false. If it's false, we're engaged in a great fraud. If it's true, it's the most important thing in the world. Now, that's the whole picture. It is either right or wrong, true or false, fraudulent or true. And that's exactly where we stand, with a conviction in our hearts that it is true, that Joseph went into the [Sacred] Grove, that he saw the Father and the Son, that he talked with them, that Moroni came, that the Book of Mormon was translated from the plates, that the priesthood was restored by those who held it anciently. That's our claim. That's where we stand, and that's where we fall, if we fall. But we don't. We just stand secure in that faith.

Greg Prince
Greg Prince is the author of David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism and a book on the Mormon priesthood.

In his earlier days as a prophet, Joseph Smith was dependant on physical artifacts as part of the prophetic process: plates, ... papyrus, ... Urim and Thummim, the seer stones. Look at the early revelations, and the introductions to them for a few months say, "Revelation received through the Urim and Thummim." Then that stops, and it never picks up again, because he is no longer dependent on those physical objects to open his mind to the revelatory process. Now, what does all that mean about the Book of Mormon? Could it be just a revelation instead of a translation? To me, yes. No problem. And it doesn't have any impact on what it has done subsequently. Yes, it could have been a literal translation of an ancient record, and this is what the result has been. But it's not the only explanation.

Terryl Givens
Terryl Givens is a professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond and author of By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion.

What is the story of Joseph's First Vision? ...

... The story of the First Vision has been told many different ways. Even Joseph himself told many different versions of it. I don't find that surprising when one sees the story of Christ in the New Testament is narrated in very, very different ways by his own followers.

But I think the most important thing that came out of the First Vision of Joseph Smith was not his claim that Christianity had gone astray, but his experience itself, that finding that by asking a simple question, God can respond in a personal, discernable way. ...

At no time in the Bible, for example, do we see an example of God speaking to individuals other than prophets. In the Book of Mormon we see fathers praying to know about the welfare of their sons. We see individuals curious about certain principles of the Gospel. We see a concerned brother who wants to find food for his family, asking where to hunt. We see military leaders asking where the Lamanites are going to invade. And in each and every case, God responds in articulate, discernable human speech.

Now, I don't know that that's a hallmark of the church today, that people believe that they hear God's voice when they pray in their rooms, but the church was founded on that principle, on that hope. ...

Marlin Jensen
Marlin K. Jensen is the executive director of the LDS Family and Church History Department and a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy.

… [Joseph Smith] was blessed to be visited by God the Father and by his Son Jesus Christ. And in that moment, he still had the presence of mind to ask and to fulfill the purpose for which he came, which interestingly wasn't to ask, "Is there a true church?"

I've always been struck, honestly, with the question he posed: "Which of the churches is true?" He thought there was a true church. That would have been the logical thing to think. And so he asked that: "Which of them all is true?," not "Is there a true church?," which, even in that question, I think, tells us something about his sincerity, his honesty. The answer was that none of them were. I mean, that was an earthshaking answer. I'm sure that it came as a very big surprise to him.

But from that experience, so much is to be had: the idea that there is a God, that Jesus is his Son; ... the idea that you can pray and receive an answer; the idea that there is a true church, there is one way to live life that is approved by God and his Son. There is so much to be learned from that one experience, and when it becomes the foundation, not just for a church but for one's personal life, then you can see why there's no chance, really, to turn that into a metaphor. ...

There are different variations of that story that have come over time. How do you account for that? Does that raise questions for you?

Yes. I've actually studied the various accounts of Joseph's First Vision, and I'm struck by the difference in his recountings. But as I look back at my missionary journals, for instance, which I've kept and other journals which I've kept throughout my life, I'm struck now in my older years by the evolution and hopefully the progression that's taken place in my own life and how differently now from this perspective I view some things that happened in my younger years. ...