~ The First Vision was a challenge to the religious vagaries of the day. It shattered many a false doctrine taught throughout the centuries. Yet it was plain and simple to the human understanding. There was no mysticism about it. Joseph saw, in full light, the personages of the vision and heard their words. The vision was beyond philosophic quibbling [John A. Widstoe – Joseph Smith: Seeker after truth, Prophet of God; p. 5] ~
There are three specific challenges that the First Vision answers. The first is that of atheism. The second is that of the present understanding of God and his nature. The third is that of divine revelation. All three of these challenges came as a result of the First Vision and not because of it. Joseph Smith had only one true desire – to know of all the religious sects – to know which is true or if they were all wrong together: My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join (Joseph Smith History, 1:18). His reasoning for inquiring of the Lord came about because of the religious fervor that found its way to where he resided. This religious fervor became known as the Second Great Awakening in American History. In his own words, Joseph Smith described the religious fervor and the impact it had on his impressionable mind:
5 Some time in the second year after our removal to Manchester, there was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion. It commenced with the Methodists, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of country. Indeed, the whole district of country seemed affected by it, and great multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties, which created no small stir and division amongst the people, some crying, “Lo, here!” and others, “Lo, there!” Some were contending for the Methodist faith, some for the Presbyterian, and some for the Baptist.
6 For, notwithstanding the great love which the converts to these different faiths expressed at the time of their conversion, and the great zeal manifested by the respective clergy, who were active in getting up and promoting this extraordinary scene of religious feeling, in order to have everybody converted, as they were pleased to call it, let them join what sect they pleased; yet when the converts began to file off, some to one party and some to another, it was seen that the seemingly good feelings of both the priests and the converts were more pretended than real; for a scene of great confusion and bad feeling ensued—priest contending against priest, and convert against convert; so that all their good feelings one for another, if they ever had any, were entirely lost in a strife of words and a contest about opinions.
7 I was at this time in my fifteenth year. My father’s family was proselyted to the Presbyterian faith, and four of them joined that church, namely, my mother, Lucy; my brothers Hyrum and Samuel Harrison; and my sister Sophronia.
8 During this time of great excitement my mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness; but though my feelings were deep and often poignant, still I kept myself aloof from all these parties, though I attended their several meetings as often as occasion would permit. In process of time my mind became somewhat partial to the Methodist sect, and I felt some desire to be united with them; but so great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was, and so unacquainted with men and things, to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong.
9 My mind at times was greatly excited, the cry and tumult were so great and incessant. The Presbyterians were most decided against the Baptists and Methodists, and used all the powers of both reason and sophistry to prove their errors, or, at least, to make the people think they were in error. On the other hand, the Baptists and Methodists in their turn were equally zealous in endeavoring to establish their own tenets and disprove all others.
10 In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it (Joseph Smith – History 1:5-10)
Through these events, having a true desire to know for himself what he ought to do and where he ought to align himself with, Joseph Smith read in the New Testament. As he relates, he found himself reading in the Epistle of James when he came across the fifth verse in the first chapter:
11 While I was laboring under the extreme difficulties caused by the contests of these parties of religionists, I was one day reading the Epistle of James, first chapter and fifth verse, which 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.
12 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; for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know; for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible.
13 At length I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion, or else I must do as James directs, that is, ask of God. I at length came to the determination to “ask of God,” concluding that if he gave wisdom to them that lacked wisdom, and would give liberally, and not upbraid, I might venture.
Here, we learned that Joseph Smith found himself confused about which sect to align with. He wondered of all the competing denominations of his day, much like we have today, claiming to have the truth and teachings of Scripture, which were truly aligned with scripture. Critics enjoy condemning Joseph Smith for reading the New Testament. Critics condemn Joseph Smith for pondering the scripture passage that spoke deeply to his heart and troubled mind. Because, for them to admit that Joseph Smith came upon a scripture passage that affected him in such a way as James 1:5, and the conclusion that his only court of appeal was to take his case to the highest person in authority, they would inevitably have to admit that he followed the Bible and his desire to seek truth. No, they have to criticize and condemn because it would be wrong to take such an approach and seek answers from the ONE who teaches that in all things, we must seek out the counsel and wisdom of our Heavenly Father. Is that not what the Proverb says: Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. What error did Joseph Smith make when he entrusted the Lord to answer his want to know which sect held the truth.
Again, Joseph Smith did not go out into the Sacred Grove that morning to condemn all of Christianity. He did not go into the Sacred Grove to seek out a new religious movement, nor to claim that he was a Prophet of God. His only reason for going out that beautiful morning were to seek out for his own understanding what sect held the truth about God and the Scriptures. Yet, when he received an answer, it became an answer that broke the silence of Heaven. An answer that revealed and challenged the atheistic thinking then, as it does today, that there truly is a God and that Jesus Christ is the Savior of humanity. It became an answer that challenged the established teachings of the day, as it does today, that God and the Son are not a ONE-in-three being of the same essence; but that The Father and the Son are two separate glorious beings. Finally, the First Vision brought about the realization that after centuries of silence, religious intolerance and persecution, corrupt priests and teachers, and pharisaic traditions, Divine Revelation once again brought about the reality of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as it was originally bestowed upon the original twelve.
Commenting about the challenge the First Vision brought about, John A. Widstoe writes this:
The vision struck first at atheism. The man-made definitions of God, inadequate for clear human thinking, had made atheists of many persons and near atheists of many more. Most of these people felt that there must be a moving power behind all natural phenomena, but many preferred to believe that the universe is driven by unknown, probably unintelligent, mechanistic forces. To such a conception, the vision made emphatic answer. God the Father with his Son stood before Joseph Smith and instructed him. God, an intelligent being, does exist! That was the witness of the vision. Upon the certainty of the existence of God, the life labors of Joseph Smith were built.
Widstoe continues with the second aspect of the challenge of the First Vision:
Further, the vision challenged the contradictory and confusing conceptions of the nature of God. For centuries men had thought, talked and philosophized about the nature of God, not only his powers but the essence of him, without reaching an agreement. Some of the ablest minds on earth, from Socrates to Ralph Waldo Emerson, had engaged in the discussion. The result was unutterable confusion to the rational mind.
A few, and a very few, had conceived God to be a person, not merely a personage. This view had ordinarily been laid aside, since it made God more nearly like man in body and powers. Men had held up their hands in horror at an anthropomorphic God, whatever that may have meant.
In early Christian days, more thinkers had accepted God as a personage, but one wholly different from man, usually a tenuous entity, indefinable, and incomprehensible.
Others, many of the Christians, taught that God was neither a person nor a personage, but a force, much like electricity or magnetism, permeating the universe, dealing impersonally with men as with all other things and beings, a world spirit, a first cause, an unknowable source of all things, the immoveable mover of the universe, pure energy, the spirit filling all men, the sole independent substance of the universe, a thought in the human mind, a spiritual substance, a monad, man’s highest idea, universal reason and intelligence, and other equally useless and incomprehensible definitions.
It was because of the First Vision, that we have recorded testimony that the Father and the Son truly are separate and distinct beings. This confirms the many passages of the New Testament where we read the distinction between Christ and the Father. Statements such as: I have come to do the will of the one that sent me or Christ’s prayer in John 17 where he requested of the Father to restore unto him the Glory and Honor he held with the Father in the beginning. In addition, Christ proclaimed that our very eternal destiny is based on our understanding and knowledge of who the Father AND the Son are.
Why, then, did the Savior inform Joseph Smith not to join any of the religious sects? Why did the Savior of humanity tell Joseph Smith that the reason behind this was due to the fact that many of these sects taught for doctrines of men and that their creeds were an abomination? John A. Widstoe answers this question:
The First Vision thus offered challenges at least to some existing dogmas: God exists as a glorious Personage; God and Christ are personal Beings; members of the Godhead may act individually as separate beings; all churches on earth had departed more or less from the pure gospel of Christ’ God may reveal himself to man at any time; the church of God would be restored, but only by direct spoken authority of the Lord. These challenges aimed at one or another of the many dogmas of the confusion of churches. The challenges were upsetting to minds trained in the traditions of the past. Naturally, the priests, professional teachers of religion, resented Joseph’s claims, and proceeded to try to destroy the new invader of the field which they had so long cultivated and maintained as their own.
The First Vision still challenges the traditional religious thinking of today. It calls into question the so-called orthodox creed of Christianity. It answers once for all whether there are many faiths, many baptisms, and many Lords; or, if there truly is ONE FAITH, BAPTISM AND ONE LORD.
Challenge of the First Vision draws the critics out because it speaks to the heart and reality of an Apostate Christian Faith that had abandoned the original teachings and Gospel of Jesus Christ that came down from the Apostles. It exposes those philosophical teachings that were built up by man’s own understanding and shatters them with true Divine Revelation that guides the Church today. Those who question the First Vision ultimate question and condemn the Father by denying that God can and will intervene when it concerns His Church and His Gospel.