Spencer: Even after Joseph Smith’s death in 1844, the story of his first vision continued to have life. Over the ensuing decades, Latter-day Saint missionaries traversed the globe. As they preached the gospel of Jesus Christ, they often related the account of the First Vision as a way of emphasizing that the heavens were open, and that God continued to communicate with His children.
In addition, these missionaries spoke of the First Vision as a key moment in the restoration of the gospel and of the primitive church. As a result, every year hundreds of thousands of people now travel to western New York to visit the Sacred Grove. It is one of the church’s most visited historic sites.
But have you ever wondered when and how the Sacred Grove became such a destination for travelers? Or why the story of the First Vision—a story about a teenage boy in western New York during the early nineteenth century—why this story has continued to resonate with people globally and hundreds of years later?
These are the questions we explore in this episode. This is The First Vision: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast, and I’m your host, Spencer McBride.
Spencer: Episode Six: I Had Seen a Vision.
Spencer: To understand how the Sacred Grove became a historic site visited by people from all around the world, I spoke with Jenny Lund. Jenny is the director of the Historic Sites Division of the Church History Department. The Historic Sites Division is responsible for restoring, preserving, and operating all of the church’s historic sites. As you can imagine, this is a lot of work. It’s work that requires significant historical knowledge and close attention to detail. Jenny told me that the story of the Sacred Grove as a historic site starts several decades after Joseph Smith’s vision.
Jenny: So, it’s really right after the turn of the twentieth century, 1900 to 1910 to 1915. In that time period, it becomes a sacred historic site for church members, and I think there are several reasons why that happens. One of those is, in the air nationally, there’s an interest in historic places, and particularly following the centennial of the American Revolution in 1876, there’s a lot of interest in history, lots of books being written, and lots of local celebrations and places being memorialized with monuments of various kinds. So, that is certainly in the air. And then the church is starting to celebrate these events as well because in 1897 they celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the pioneers coming into the Salt Lake Valley, and in 1905, it’s the hundredth anniversary of Joseph Smith’s birth. So, that is certainly in the air.
Spencer: But there is more to the moment than a national movement to preserve historic sites. As Jenny explains, there is a change in the membership of the church that drives church leaders to preserve the sites of the church’s early history.
Jenny: I think the other thing that’s significant is Joseph F. Smith, who was president of the church during that era, was the last president of the church to have known Joseph Smith and Hyrum Smith, his own father. So, he is very cognizant that that generation who could stand in a testimony meeting and say, “I knew Joseph Smith, personally,” is now going to be gone.
Spencer: In episode one, you might remember, we learned that the social and cultural transformation of the United States during the early nineteenth century shaped the world in which Joseph Smith experienced his first vision? Well, the demographics of the church in the early twentieth century shaped the way that church leaders worked to restore and preserve the site of an event so central to their history. Living memory of Joseph was disappearing as the first generations of church members passed away. It was a pivotal time.
Jenny: George Albert Smith, who was an apostle at the time, personally purchased the Smith farm in 1907, but the previous owners remained on it until 1916 as tenant farmers. So, after 1916, George Albert Smith transferred ownership to the church, so he was acting as the church’s agent in making that purchase.
After that, people start stopping by. The church calls missionaries who go to the farm to run the farm, but it’s a farm; it’s not a visitor site. So, it’s really after World War II where the church starts inviting visitors to come and where now we have this whole new tourist experience of the great American road trip. Cars are available, motels, and it makes it possible to take a road trip. After World War II is when we really start to see really consistent high levels of visitation to the Smith farm and to the Sacred Grove.
Spencer: So, Jenny, how many people visit the Sacred Grove every year?
Jenny: Well, today, we’re not quite sure exactly what that would be, because we don’t take visitation statistics right at the entrance to the grove, but we do track the number of visitors who go to Hill Cumorah visitor’s center, which is really the visitor’s center to that whole area, and that ranges between 150,000 to 200,000 visitors per year.
We are pretty confident that the great majority of those visits the Sacred Grove while they’re there.
Spencer: And from where are these visitors traveling?
Jenny: Certainly, most of the visitors are North Americans, so they’re close at hand—Americans and Canadians, so it’s easy for them to drive to the site or fly and stop. But you would be surprised at the number of international visitors, people who come from all over the world. Latter-day Saints who want to make a visit to places of historical significance to the church, they come.
Spencer: When I think on these large numbers of visitors to the Sacred Grove each year—and that they come from all around the world—I cannot help but wonder what is it that these visitors hope to experience when they arrive. Why do they come?
Of course, part of the answer is obvious. It’s a site with immense historical significance. But for many, the site seems to offer more than history. It’s a spiritual place, a place where people can connect with the history of their church, but also where they hope to connect in some way with God.
Jenny: So, I think you got the word just right when you said connect. And I don’t think there’s a big difference between the historical and the spiritual, especially for Latter-Day Saints, because I think those two are mixed. And I think they’re mixed, as well, for people of other faiths who come to our historic sites. Somehow, they want to connect with something that happened in the past that made a difference, that it changed people’s lives. It changed history. And so, they want to come there. I think for Latter-Day Saints, the concept that this is the beginning place of the Restoration, so, all those things that they have in their lives today that are so meaningful are there because of what happened in that grove.
And I think there’s also a sense that, we talk about Joseph going into the grove, as a young boy with questions, and all of us have questions. And so, I think there is this hope that if I go into the sacred place, I will have some answers of my own—that maybe it’s easier to have those kinds of spiritual experiences there.
Spencer: In a very real way, what the visitors to the Sacred Grove are doing is walking the fields of history. They walk where Joseph Smith and his family walked. They want to experience the place as Joseph knew it.
This raises the question, to what extent does the Smith family farm and the adjacent grove of trees resemble the farm and grove as Joseph knew them in 1820? And how did the church go about restoring the site to provide a scene that is as historically accurate as possible?
Jenny Lund explains to me that for many years after the church purchased the Smith family farm and the Sacred Grove and began to operate them as a historic site, tenant farmers lived in the home and worked the land and served as hosts for those visiting the property. But eventually the church’s Historic Sites program took the lead in restoring the site to what it was like in the 1820s.
Jenny: So what you saw with the Smith frame home is that in the early 1990s, we took that building and took off all the later additions—Victorian windows that had been added, the fireplaces which had been added to each end, the original central chimney of the home had been torn out at some point, and we replaced that, and we took that home back to what it looked like when Joseph and his parents and his brothers and sisters lived in the home.
Spencer: A lot of work goes into restoring a site such as the Sacred Grove. Research, physical labor, the acquisition of period furniture and other materials. Some may wonder if such attention to detail is necessary. But to the church’s historic sites team, the work is essential to the visitor experience.
Jenny: We’re interested in commemoration, but we’re more interested in restoration, to taking you back to the place and time. When people can walk into a space that was the way it looked when Joseph lived there, they have a much more profound connection. They understand sometimes the scriptures better. All of a sudden, they understand the history better when they can be in not just the place, which you see in the commemoration model, but in the place and the time, and the event that you really see most effectively in the restoration model.
Spencer: And what about the grove? Restoring the homes on the Smith family farm is one thing. But what about the grove of trees? How does one restore a portion of the forest with the goal of historical accuracy?
Jenny: The Sacred Grove, of course, is probably our most significant historic site, and so we have given a great deal of attention to restoring that grove. We don’t usually talk about preservation, when it comes to a grove because trees die. It’s a living thing, and so we’re less [about] preserving individual trees as we are about preserving or restoring the living organism of this grove so that people today can have a similar experience to what Joseph Smith had in the 1820s.
So, for many years the church took great care to pick up all the dead trees and all the limbs on the ground, sweep out leaves, and clean it up so it was a pristine, almost like a city park. And in the 1990s, we hired a forestry expert to come in and analyze the grove, and his analysis can be summed up in the line, which he actually used, and that is, “You are loving this place to death.” So, the challenge was, how do we rectify that? And he set us on a path that has made a significant difference in the grove. So, if you were to walk in the grove in the mid-1990s and walking the grove today, you would see a significantly different place. And the primary principle is that we let nature take its course in the grove.
So, all those dead limbs and all those leaves remain in place where they fall. And that means that they will then return nutrients to the ground which will then support the trees in their growth.
Spencer: Now, perhaps you never thought that forestry could play such an important role in historical preservation. But it was crucial to the restoration and preservation of the Sacred Grove in recent years. So, in addition to historians and curators, the Historic Sites Division relies on the expertise of foresters. Jenny Lund explains the benefits.
Jenny: Other things that we’ve done include expanding the grove. The grove was just maybe as much as ten acres when the church purchased it in the early twentieth century. That is not very big for a forest. It really creates an island, if you will, and that island is then much more susceptible to disease, invasive plant species, to pathogens, all kinds of things that can attack a stand of trees. And so, one of the things we decided to do that was very important is to expand the size of the grove. We purchased buffer property around the Smith farm so that we would be able to expand that grove. There were some stands of trees there, and so we could use those trees to help add to our space, and by buying them, that meant that somebody else wouldn’t at some point cut them down.
But the other thing we’ve done is to do regeneration, and that is to take some farm fields that were just right adjacent and allow those fields to go back into trees, go back into forest.
Spencer: You may be wondering if all this work has paid off. Is the grove of trees that visitors experience today similar to the grove of trees that Joseph would have experienced?
Jenny: Yes, the grove really does resemble in a lot of ways the space that Joseph walked into on that spring day in 1820. The same types of trees are growing there. There are just a handful. We’re probably down to three trees that have been called “witness trees” because we know they are older than two hundred years. Two hundred years is about the maximum life span for the longest lived tree in that particular forest, but there are few trees left who were actually there when Joseph went into the grove to pray.
Spencer: It is common—even natural—for visitors to the Sacred Grove to wonder precisely where in the grove Joseph Smith knelt and prayed. As we learned in episode three, we do not know where in the grove Joseph prayed. Still, I have spoken with many men and women who have visited the Sacred Grove, and they feel strongly that they found the spot where the vision occurred. They describe poignant feelings as driving such hopes.
Mark Staker is a curator with the Historic Sites Division of the Church History Department. He has spent as much time in the Sacred Grove as anybody else that I know. So, I asked him for his thoughts on the very natural and quite understandable inclination some visitors have to try to identify the precise spot in which the vision occurred.
Mark: Every time I go to the Sacred Grove—and I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve been there—but every time I go to the Sacred Grove, I feel the Spirit. I feel a witness of the things that happened on that property and that Sacred Grove has come to represent that powerfully, that it’s the symbol of that moment when God spoke again to man. And it’s not a specific location in the grove, but it’s the fact that that grove is that symbol, and it tells us in a visual way of the setting where those events took place. I think that is so powerful and bears witness in and of itself that those events happened. I think it’s so important. People, when they go through the grove they feel the Spirit, and they feel a witness that those events took place, sometimes they’re prone to think, “Oh, this is the very spot that it happened because I felt the witness in this location,” or “That’s the very spot that it happened.” For different people, they feel that witness in different places in the grove, but that’s not our Father in Heaven trying to identify a location to them, that’s the Holy Ghost bearing witness that those events really happened.
Spencer: As a historian I have thought long and hard about the influence of the First Vision in the years since Joseph Smith’s death in 1844. In so many ways, it is a story tied to a time and a place. The early 1800s. Western New York. Religious revivalism. Joseph Smith, a young boy in the midst of this religious fervor, wondering about the state of his soul and, to that end, which of all the churches was true. I am convinced that understanding Joseph Smith’s world empowers us to better understand his first vision, and the visions, revelations, and gathering of Saints that followed.
But the influence of Joseph Smith’s first vision is not restricted to that time and place. Every day and all around the world missionaries share Joseph Smith’s first vision and talk about its religious implications. And for many who listen to them, the story resonates. It touches them. It changes them.
To better understand the enduring global appeal of Joseph Smith’s first vision, I spoke with Elder LeGrand Curtis Jr. Elder Curtis is a General Authority Seventy in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Church Historian and Recorder. During his ecclesiastical ministry, Elder Curtis has traveled throughout the world and has spent considerable time with Latter-day Saints in Europe and Africa. He has seen firsthand how the First Vision has impacted the lives of men and women far removed in time and space from the 1820 event. I asked him why he thinks the story of the First Vision has such an enduring appeal.
Elder Curtis: I think that one of the things that we have to take into account in looking at that is the fact that it’s true, that it happened. And it’s hard to overstate the importance of it—that God the Father and Jesus Christ came to earth and visited Joseph Smith, who would become the prophet of the Restoration. That it happened, and that message that then was going to roll forth from the church that would be organized as part of the chain of events that that started, is Christ’s true church on earth today, and that God the Father and Jesus Christ both want people to know about that.
So, one of the things that makes for the universality of this, or the appeal, is that God sends His Holy Ghost to bear witness of it. And I think that that is one of the reasons why it plays so well across the world is that the Holy Ghost says to people, “This is true.”
Spencer: And restoration appears to be a central aspect of the First Vision’s broad appeal. A desire to connect with the divine, to know God’s will, to discover the primitive church—these desires fueled much of the revivalism of nineteenth-century New York. But they were not new desires then. And people have continued to seek a better understanding of God and His will. They have continued to seek God’s church. The story of Joseph Smith and his first vision speak directly to that.
Elder Curtis: One of the real interesting things about the history of the church in West Africa is that there were people back in the 1950s, in the 1960s, that began to get literature about the church and wanted to have the church come to West Africa. And it didn’t come. What they could get is more literature.
And one of the key figures and all that is man by the name William “Billy” Johnson. I wanted to just read something from what he said that I think is really interesting about the First Vision. “As a young man, I started searching for spiritual peace,” is what Billy Johnson said. “It was my prayer that the Lord would show me which church to join,” which I think is a really interesting parallel.
Then, in 1964, he met a man that gave him literature from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and then he says this: “I read the testimony of the prophet Joseph Smith, and I believe that testimony. I believed it was a great message for the whole world. So, I read the Book of Mormon and found it to be true, the true word of God.” I think it’s really interesting that Billy Johnson found from when he first read the account of Joseph Smith’s first vision that he just instantly believed that it was true.
And I’ve seen that with those who are looking into the church. I saw it in Italy. I’ve seen it in the US. I’ve seen it in Africa—that the First Vision is often the first thing they will hear about our message, and then it leads them to the Book of Mormon, and it leads them to coming church. It really has a very interesting place in people’s conversion stories.
Spencer: But, as Elder Curtis went on to explain, there are other personal applications of Joseph Smith’s experiences as a fourteen-year-old boy that speak to the human experience.
Elder Curtis: One of the examples I thought about is, I’ve thought about the First Vision is one of our Area Seventy in Africa, a man by the name of Freebody Mansa. He was given some pamphlets, “Which Church Is Right?,” which was an old pamphlet we used to use in my days when I was a missionary, and “The Joseph Smith Story,” and he had them for a while. They were sitting around his place he was living for a while, and then he pulled them out one night and started reading them. And he immediately felt the power that was in that recitation of the story of the prophet Joseph Smith. So, he goes back to the member that had given them these pamphlets. He starts meeting with the missionaries. He’s baptized a month later.
But one of the really interesting aspects of his story is, in a few months after that, he needed to go to the hospital. He was on his way, cutting through a field, and he heard a voice call him by name. And he didn’t just call him by his formal Christian name; he called him by his African nickname that he went by, that told him, “There’s a snake that’s going to cause you harm. Go away.” And he looked around, and there was nobody, but he realized that, just like Joseph Smith had been called by name by God, that God was calling him by name. There was that connection. And I think one of the reasons why the story of the First Vision resonates with people is, it is one person connecting with Deity.
Spencer: And in the history of religion, no matter the time and place, we see this desire of men and women to connect with Deity. And often humans seek that connection because they need direction in their lives.
And that seems to point to another reason that Joseph’s first vision remains so important to men, women, and children two hundred years later.
It’s common today, when the First Vision is brought up in lessons in Sunday School, Priesthood, Young Women’s, Relief Society, and other church classes for Latter-day Saints to talk about what the First Vision teaches us about the nature of God. Often, these observations are a response to the creeds of other Christian denominations. But, as Steven Harper, professor of church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University explains, more important than what the First Vision reveals about the embodiment of God and the composition of the Godhead is what the vision reveals about God’s compassion.
Steve: Today, we say things to each other, like, “You know, the real significance of the First Vision is we learn about the true nature of God. For example, that God and Christ are separate and embodied.” That’s true. It’s important. They were talking about that in Kirtland by the late 1830s. But, so what if God is embodied if He’s not responsive to His teenage children who are in crisis?
In other words, the real resonance of the First Vision today is to know that it’s the nature of God to give to those who lack wisdom, to answer those who are in distress, to come to the aid of His children who are desperately needing reassurance of His love, and that they’re not cast off because of their sinfulness. God is responsive. God isn’t cold, heartless. The God that reveals Himself to Joseph Smith in the Sacred Grove is a God who answers teenagers in times of trouble. That, to me, is everything.
Spencer: Times of crisis where comfort is needed. Tough choices in which there is not a clear decision. These are the moments in which people of all ages can take heart in the story of Joseph Smith’s vision as a teenager in 1820. Elder Curtis addresses this.
Elder Curtis: We can all appreciate, we can all identify with what it’s like to have a difficult decision and want guidance from God. And one of the truths that comes from the First Vision is that you can really ask and get answers.
Spencer: And, of course, many men and women, like Joseph Smith, seek that connection with God because they are concerned about the state of their souls.
Elder Curtis: One of the gems that comes out of the 1832 telling is that, in addition to wanting to know what church he should join, Joseph wanted forgiveness for his sins.
Now talk about something that we can all identify with, including young people—this feeling of knowing that being around this planet and going through the ups and downs of life, that we’re not as clean, as pure, as good, as we should be, and that yearning to be better, that yearning to be clean. I think that that is another thing about this recitation, this telling of the First Vision that is so meaningful is that we know that we can be forgiven of sins.
Spencer: Answers to prayer. Spiritual direction. Forgiveness for sins. That seems to bring us back to where it all started for Joseph Smith. A young boy trying to sort through deep questions about his soul, wanting to know and connect with God. Joseph recounted a magnificent vision of Deity as a result of his spiritual seeking. And, as he explained in his 1838 account of the First Vision, the implications of his experience were indeed universal. He wrote: “I had found the testimony of James to be true—that a man who lacked wisdom might ask of God, and obtain, and not be upbraided.” To Joseph, this was the memorable message of the First Vision.
This concludes The First Vision: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast. I’m glad you joined us. Additional information and historical documents, including Joseph Smith’s firsthand accounts of his 1820 vision, can be found at josephsmithpapers.org. I’m Spencer McBride. Thank you for listening.