“What Was to Be Done” (The First Vision Podcast, Episode 2): Transcript
Spencer: In 1817, while standing upon the rapidly changing landscape around Palmyra, New York, a twelve-year-old Joseph Smith would look up at the sun, the moon, and the stars in the sky and contemplate the existence of God. He was confident that God existed, but he was unsure of where he stood in God’s eyes.
In his own words, he recalled, “At about the age of twelve years my mind became seriously impressed with the all-important concerns for the welfare of my immortal soul.”
What’s more, Joseph worried about the state of the world. He wrote later: “I pondered many things in my heart concerning the situation of the world of mankind.”
Now, this raises an important point in the story of Joseph Smith’s first vision. Before he ever asked which church was right, he asked how he could be saved. He asked about the state of his soul.
So, while the natural world he witnessed in New York seemed to confirm his faith in God, the religious excitement in his community left him unsettled. In this episode, we talk about the way Joseph navigated the religious excitement in his community and how his quest for the answers to questions of eternal significance ultimately led him to the woods to commune with God directly.
This is The First Vision: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast, and I’m your host, Spencer McBride.
Spencer: Episode Two: What Was to Be Done?
Spencer: Perhaps it was out of curiosity that Joseph Smith began attending the various church meetings and religious revivals in his community. We don’t really know, but we do know that by the age of twelve he was taking the religious conversations happening around him very seriously. Pretty quickly his attendance at the meetings became connected to his spiritual seeking.
Steve: He’s looking at Christian churches because he believes that redemption from sin and death comes through Jesus Christ, so as he investigates where to find that, he desperately needs it.
Spencer: That’s Steven Harper, a professor of church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University.
Steve: He [Joseph] writes in his 1832 account, “I had become convicted of my sins. I felt to mourn for my sins, for the sins of the world.” He’s desperate for forgiveness, so he’s looking for it, and the further he looks, the more confusing it is because of the competing theologies of salvation.
Spencer: Now, not all of the meetings Joseph Smith attended were revivals, or camp meetings, but some of them were, and these were often large events.
Rachel: Overall, it really is a preacher sharing a sermon and a lot of those preachers were very energetic, charismatic people that drew people in.
Spencer: That’s Rachel Cope, an associate professor of church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University.
Rachel: And they would speak often outside just because that was the space that they had, and a lot of times there weren’t as many churches available as well. That evolved into the camp meetings and people gathering together and even camping to be there for the revival, and then having the open-air preaching and so on.
Spencer: People would congregate in these outdoor venues. They would sing hymns and listen to sermons, prayers, and testimonies. Some of these revivals would last for days. The goal was almost always the same: to help people have spiritual experiences that converted them to Jesus Christ, and to revive and renew the religious commitment of the previously converted.
Christopher Jones, an assistant professor of history at Brigham Young University, explains:
Chris: And one method often employed is at these camp meeting sites, these large outdoor gatherings in the middle of woods or fields, there would be a preaching stand directed from which several preachers would preach over the course of these days. Others would pray and exhort and so on, and just below that, down on the floor, they would put a bench that they called the mourners’ bench or the anxious bench. And they would invite those out in the crowd who were experiencing something, who felt that prick in their heart to use a biblical phrase, who felt something stirring within them during the course of the preaching and singing and praying, to come forward. And there they would mourn. There they would reveal their anxieties—put it all on the table before Christ.
And we have reports of people fainting and falling on the ground and being converted to Christ. These could be pretty wild, pretty charismatic—what the participants understood as almost Pentecostal—experiences where they were experiencing intense emotions, sometimes physical reactions and, in some instances, visions of angels and of God and of other divine beings. And so, the typical formula here, if there is one, is that they would be invited up to the mourners’ bench, and then—at this moment of great alarm where they are overwhelmed with a conviction of their sinfulness and seeking conversion to God—they would fall to the ground, often times almost passing out. Then, when they would come to, they would report the incredible work that God had done for them. Often times, they would report miraculous visions that they had where Jesus Christ would appear to them, forgive them of their sins and tell them to go and sin no more, tell them to be baptized, tell them to join a specific church.
Spencer: Joseph Smith recalled that there was often a unity among different Christian denominations where these revivals were concerned. The focus was on conversion in general. At least, it was initially.
Chris: The interesting thing about these revivals is that they start in the 1790s and 1800s as a cooperative, as a means of cooperation between Methodists and Presbyterians and Baptists, all evangelically-minded, who are intent on converting people to Christ regardless of denomination.
But by the 1810s and by the 1820s, they have become, as Joseph Smith remembers in upstate New York, “a war of words and [contest] of opinions” between these with each aggressively proselytizing for converts, not just to Christ, but to their specific faith, to their specific church.
Spencer: Joseph Smith was not the only observer of the revivals in western New York to comment on the contention that ultimately arose between the denominations. Theodore Weld, a famous reformer and advocate of religious revivals, later wrote to one of the most famous revivalist preachers in the entire country—his friend, Charles Finney. He lamented the religious condition of his town in western New York. This is what he wrote: “Christians have talked themselves to death. Instead of throwing ourselves on our faces in the dust, we have been talking and disputing and taking sides.”
Some participants in the revivals converted quickly. Some followed their conversion with interdenominational debates. Still, others listened quietly.
Rachel: People would share religious experiences; they would call it professing their faith. And that would happen, where if people either felt a conviction or a spiritual witness, they might share something, or if they experienced conversion, they might share that.
That certainly happened. There would be people who would have experiences and would share those experiences in that very public context, but there were also a number of quiet, individual experiences taking place. And a lot of people—and I have found this to be the norm—a lot of people record either having that kind of quiet witness there and keeping it to themself or having their conscience pricked and a desire, where they want to experience what they’ve heard other people talking about.
Spencer: Others, yearning for conversion, yearning for answers, patiently participated and waited. Joseph Smith was among them. He later recalled how badly he wanted to experience what others in the camp meeting seemed to be experiencing: “[He] wanted to get religion too, wanted to feel and shout like the rest, but [he] could feel nothing.”
Rachel: He’s reflecting; he’s reading; he’s listening; he’s searching; he’s attending revivals; he’s doing all of this stuff, and it takes him forever to actually get the answer.
Spencer: And Rachel suggests that there is a lesson for people then and now in the waiting that occurred.
Rachel: And I also think of Lucy Mack Smith, who said in her account that she spent twenty years praying to find the right church, and then she says, basically, little did I realize that it would be through my son that it would eventually come. But twenty years of praying? Twenty years. And then we tell the stories as if everything’s instantaneous and then feel like we’re falling short because nothing is instantaneous for us. Again, we focus on the moment, but when you get into the letters and the diaries of the people who are attending them, that’s one piece of this long process, and the answers come over a period of time, and they continue to grow into those answers as well.
Spencer: For Joseph Smith and many members of his family, their search for answers to the pressing questions of their souls was a process and a prolonged one at that.
Chris: Joseph would have witnessed those conversions up close and personal. He would have witnessed those firsthand in his own attendance at these meetings. When he recounts later that he wanted to get religion and feel and shout like the rest, that’s what he is longing for, but he reports that he could ultimately feel nothing. These camp meetings are not producing the same response in him that the preachers are intending. What many of these individuals are both encouraged to do, or simply choose to do, is to then pursue conversion more privately.
Spencer: So far in this episode, we have talked a lot about answers. Let’s take a moment to talk about questions—specifically, the questions to which Joseph Smith was seeking answers.
And in the way that many Latter-day Saints have heard the story, the pressing question for Joseph Smith was, Which of all the churches is true? Which one was the correct church, or the church teaching the correct doctrine of Jesus Christ?
And he did ask that question. But there was an important question that preceded it. Joseph wanted to know about salvation. He wondered about the state of his soul, about his standing before God. He wanted to be forgiven for his sins. He wanted to know the path to eternal salvation.
Steve: Joseph’s question is an ultimate question. He’s asking about the most important concerns a person can have, the most eternal ones. He’s not asking what church should I join, like we might choose from a variety of grocery stores or a country club options. He’s asking about redemption.
Spencer: And so, Joseph only arrives at the question of which church is true as he seeks the answer to this larger question—as he seeks resolution to these bigger concerns. And, as Steven Harper sees it, this small shift in how we tell the story of the First Vision can help us understand the connection Joseph Smith saw to the restoration of the Church of Jesus Christ and the salvation of God’s children.
Steve: The only reason to know which church is true is to know which one leads me to Christ, which one is His, which one can I find forgiveness in. So, it changes everything. It makes our association with church more than about which doctrines are right. It’s a lot less theological or, at least, it’s much more practical. It’s about my salvation, not just about a theological argument.
Spencer: And that’s the big question that Joseph Smith is seeking: How can I be forgiven of my sins? His question about the state of his soul prompted the other questions that ultimately led him into a grove of trees to pray. It was only in seeking answers to the pressing questions of his soul that Joseph Smith determined that he must find out which of all the churches was true.
Spencer: It was in one of the religious meetings that Joseph Smith attended that he was pointed to a scripture that would alter his seeking for religious truth. Key to Joseph Smith’s story, then, is his encounter with James chapter one, verse five.
It reads, “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.”
The verse provides a pretty straightforward direction. If you lack wisdom, ask God, and He will grant you wisdom.
But for Joseph, this verse did more than provide direction for his spiritual quest; it changed the way that he read and understood the Bible.
Steve: It’s a Protestant-dominated world. This means that the idea that the Bible alone, the scripture alone, sola scriptura, is a dominant idea in his culture. The Bible is the book of answers. Everything you ever need to know from God is in that book.
And so, he’s drunk deeply from that cultural well. So have his parents, his neighbors, everybody around him just about assumes that the Bible is the place to find God, and so Joseph—in desperation for God, for redemption, forgiveness, love, acceptance—goes to the Bible, believing it to be true, as he says. He tests it. He’s looking, initially, for the answers. He’s looking for a passage that says, “What the Methodists are telling you is true” or “What the Presbyterians are saying is true.” He’s hoping for something that clear, and he’s not going to find it. And teenaged Joseph Smith is unequipped to have any idea how he ought to read the Bible in light of these learned folks who have given all different kinds of interpretations. And that crisis, the tension builds in it, and it doesn’t resolve until he realizes that the Bible is not an archive of all the answers to every question. It’s a book about people who ask God for wisdom and received. It’s a book that shows how to seek and receive answers from God, and when he gets that from James 1:5, it changes everything.
Spencer: “Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. 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.”
That’s how Joseph recalled feeling when he first pondered that scripture.
The differing interpretations of the Bible from the preachers of different denominations had only confused Joseph. Now, he understood that one of the central messages of the Bible, repeated in story after story and explained explicitly in the Epistle of James, was that he could go directly to God for answers.
Steve: Nothing is more consistent and more potent in Joseph’s first vision narratives than the epiphany of James 1:5. He comes back to that all the time. That first revelation that he could read the Bible differently, that he could go to God himself, that was a huge shift in his thinking. It was not coming out of his culture. He had to get that from God and the Bible on his own.
Spencer: To go to God in prayer was precisely what Joseph determined to do.
Spencer: Why the woods? And what I mean by that is why did Joseph decide to pray in the woods near his home? Have you ever thought about that?
Now, there was certainly a practical reason to seek seclusion in a grove of trees. In 1820, the small log home in which the Smith family lived was full to the brim. Ten people shared the cramped quarters. Privacy was at a premium. The forest was the obvious alternative.
But there are other possible explanations. At the revivals Joseph attended, he undoubtedly would have heard accounts of others praying in the seclusion of the woods and receiving dramatic answers. It was part of the religious culture of the time. In early-nineteenth-century New York, it was a common practice of religious seekers.
Additionally, seeking the solitude and peace of nature to pray appears to have been a common practice in the Smith family.
Steve: We don’t know how regular, but we do know that people in this time and place seek seclusion in the woods to pray, and we know, specifically, that Joseph Smith’s mother has done this. She tells in her memoir about a time—around the time Joseph was born, probably a little earlier—when she has, before this, promised God that she will seek His truth. He has mercifully answered her prayers before, and she promised Him that she would find Him, find His church. So, she’s shopping, and she decides Methodism looks like an awfully good choice, and she wants her husband to go with her to the Methodist church. And she says he does just to please her, until her father-in-law comes to the house and throws a Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason in the house and says, “Read that until you believe it.” Joseph Sr. stops going with her to church, so she’s torn. He’s torn between his family he grows up in and his wife. That hurts her feelings very much. She tells us that she goes to a grove of wild cherry trees, kneels down, and prays. That night, she dreams, and she sees this beautiful meadow and two trees on a stream bank, and one of the trees sways in the breeze. It was beautiful. She said it seemed like it was alive. And another one is stiff and obstinate, and she realizes that the trees are her husband, the flexible one, and his older brother, who’s inflexible, immovable. She realizes—the revelation she gets to interpret her dream is—the restored gospel is coming. The Lord will make it known to you, and when your husband learns it, he will embrace it. You don’t need to keep fretting, worrying about him. He’ll embrace it.
So, how does Joseph Smith learn that when you have a religious crisis you go pray to God in the woods? It seems very likely to me, given the way families tell narratives, form stories that kind of shape their family’s story, it seems very likely to me that he’s heard that or variations on that story before, and he knows that when you have a tough question for God, you go to the woods and ask Him about it.
Spencer: Be it a very pragmatic need for privacy, the religious culture of the time and place, the family’s traditional practices, or some combination of the three. In any case, Joseph determined to pray to God for help. He entered the woods on a morning in the spring of 1820 to do just that.
Spencer: So, we’ve now followed the story of Joseph Smith and his first vision to the moment in which he entered the woods near his home in the spring of 1820. It’s a pivotal moment, for sure.
But in our efforts to reconstruct the world in which Joseph Smith sought wisdom from God and received a momentous vision in answer, it’s worth talking about Joseph’s sensory experience. What did the grove of trees he entered look like in the spring of 1820? What did it sound like? We could even ask what did it smell like? Now, these may seem like odd questions, and maybe they are, but what if I told you that the answers could very well change the way you envision this event?
The sensory experience of the Sacred Grove. We’ll talk about it in the next episode of The First Vision: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast.