Several years ago, then-Elder Russell M. Nelson testified that Joseph Smith’s vision of the Father and the Son in spring 1820 is at “the center from which the very pulse of life for this Church has emanated.” This vision “is at the very heart of our religion” (“At the Heart of the Church,” in “The Prophet and His Work: Essays from General Authorities on Joseph Smith and the Restoration,” Deseret Book, 1996, pages 50-65).
In response to a fervent prayer inquiring which church he should join, 14-year-old Joseph Smith beheld a vision of Heavenly Father and His Son Jesus Christ. He later recalled “that my telling the story had excited a great deal of prejudice against me among professors of religion, and was the cause of great persecution, which continued to increase; and though I was an obscure boy, only between fourteen and fifteen years of age, and my circumstances in life such as to make a boy of no consequence in the world, yet men of high standing would take notice sufficient to excite the public mind against me” (Joseph Smith–History verse 22).
Notwithstanding the increasing public criticism of his account of the vision, Joseph declared: “… it was nevertheless a fact that I had beheld a vision … I had actually seen a light, and in the midst of that light I saw two Personages, and they did in reality speak to me; and though I was hated and persecuted for saying that I had seen a vision, yet it was true” (verses 24-25).
Three years later, the angel Moroni appeared to Joseph and informed him of “a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang. He also said that the fulness of his everlasting Gospel was contained in it, as delivered by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants” (verse 34).
After subsequent visits from the angel Moroni, four years later Joseph received the gold plates. He was commanded not to show the plates to any other person, but when their existence became widely known, he was continually hounded to show the plates to others.
Eventually the young Prophet was given permission to invite three other men to have the opportunity of seeing the plates for themselves. Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris and David Whitmer jointly testified “that we have seen the engravings which are upon the plates; and they have been shown unto us by the power of God, and not of man. And we declare with words of soberness, that an angel of God came down from heaven, and he brought and laid before our eyes, that we beheld and saw the plates” (The Testimony of Three Witnesses).
Young Joseph was relieved and overjoyed that he was no longer the only person to have seen the plates. His mother, Lucy Mack Smith, recalled that when Joseph returned home, he said: “Father, Mother, you do not know how happy I am: the Lord has now caused the plates to be shown to three more besides myself. … I feel as if I was relieved of a burden which was almost too heavy for me to bear, and it rejoices my soul, that I am not any longer to be entirely alone in the world” (“History of Joseph Smith by His Mother Lucy Mack Smith,” page 15).
Not long afterward, eight additional witnesses, all men of proven character, had the privilege of seeing the plates, and they jointly testified that “as many of the leaves as the said Smith has translated we did handle with our hands; and we also saw the engravings thereon, all of which has the appearance of ancient work, and of curious workmanship” (Testimony of Eight Witnesses).
Thirty years ago, while my wife and I were serving on a Church assignment in France, the full-time missionaries would frequently invite a young 16-year-old priest in our ward to accompany them to their teaching appointments. This youth would generally come home feeling somewhat melancholy. He’d say, “Every time we tell people of Joseph Smith’s First Vision they will shake their heads and say: ‘Impossible!’ ”
Then, one evening he came home with a smile on his face. He related how his missionary companion had invited him to tell those they were teaching about the vision in the grove. As he neared the end of his brief presentation, he felt a warm prompting and said: “If you want to know for yourselves if Joseph Smith really did see the Father and the Son, just ask God — He was there!” Ever since that experience, he has never hesitated to describe Joseph’s First Vision and to bear testimony of its truthfulness. The burden of proof then rests with the listener.
Regarding the law of witnesses, the Savior Himself declared: “This is my doctrine, and it is the doctrine which the Father hath given unto me: and I bear record of the Father, and the Father beareth record of me, and the Holy Ghost beareth record of the Father and me” (3 Nephi 11:32). When we ask our Heavenly Father in the name of His Son Jesus Christ if They truly did appear to young Joseph Smith, I testify that when we pray sincerely, with real intent, the Holy Ghost will bear a strong witness of the truthfulness of this event. If you want to know if Joseph Smith truly did see the Father and the Son, just ask God — He was there!
— Elder Spencer J. Condie, an emeritus General Authority Seventy, is a former Brigham Young University professor of sociology and ancient scripture.