“The Visions of Joseph Smith”

I ran across the following devotional after being asked a question about the first vision and thought it was interesting enough to share. Several snippets:

Visions can take various forms. Personal visitations or appearances of deity, angels, or even Satan and his emissaries certainly come under the heading of visions. Visions can also include seeing vivid images where the veil is lifted from an individual’s mind in order to see and comprehend the things of God. Certain dreams could be considered visions, particularly when heavenly or spiritual messages are conveyed. Finally, certain revelations received through the Urim and Thummim mediums such as the Nephite interpreters and the seer stone may also be classified as visions.

While the visions received by Joseph Smith were also revelatory experiences, revelations were not always visionary. Hence, in researching Joseph Smith’s visions, I attempted to distinguish between visions and other kinds of inspiration or revelation. More often than not, when a vision was involved, the wording of the source material indicated that a vision–not a more general “revelation”–had been received. However, in some instances, the visual nature of the experience was not quite clear.

Three major points became apparent as I researched Joseph Smith’s visions. First, and perhaps most remarkable, is the sheer number of visions the Prophet received. The majority of these visions are not found in the standard works but pervade the Prophet’s own history and the records kept by contemporaries who were present when a vision was received or when Joseph Smith spoke about his sacred communications. As I began collecting the accounts of the visions, I realized that any attempt to total the number of visions would risk excluding some, since evidence of visions relies upon documentation, and some visions may have been purposely unrecorded. Of one vision Joseph remarked, “I could explain a hundred fold more that I ever have of the glories of the kingdoms manifested to me in the vision were I permitted, and were the people prepared to receive them.”

Second, the Prophet was privileged to receive so many visions that is appears they became almost commonplace experiences for him. For example, in 1843 he said, “It is my meditation all the day, and more than my meat and drink, to know how I shall make the Saints of God comprehend the visions that roll like an overflowing surge before my mind.” Perhaps because his visionary experiences were so frequent, he often left out details or failed to record certain events altogether.

Finally, in a number of instances, others witnessed Joseph Smith’s visionary experiences or were present when the Prophet had visions, often seeing the manifestation with him. The recorded statements of these witnesses and co-participants give additional testimony and credibility to the reality of the Prophet’s seeric experiences.

The remainder can be found at the BYU Hawaii website at “The Visions of Joseph Smith” | Devotionals and Speeches

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1 Nephi 11

And the Spirit said unto me: Behold, what desirest thou?

And I said: I desire to behold the things which my father saw.

1 Nephi 11:2-3

And he said unto me: What desirest thou?

And I said unto him: To know the interpretation thereof—for I spake unto him as a man speaketh; for I beheld that he was in the form of a man; yet nevertheless, I knew that it was the Spirit of the Lord; and he spake unto me as a man speaketh with another.

1 Nephi 11:10-11

The beginning of Nephi’s vision again has lots that could be said about it – including possibly a rather singular episode where the Holy Ghost personally turns up (the Book of Mormon usage of Spirit of the Lord – and Nephi’s reaction for that matter – suggest this may be the Holy Ghost as opposed to the pre-incarnate Christ as in Ether 3). Yet one striking question I feel is one asked by the Spirit twice of Nephi: ‘what desirest thou?’

It is Nephi’s answers to these questions that dictate the course of his vision. So much seems to hinge on what we really want, and how badly we want it. It seems to my mind a key component of receiving a testimony or revelation, which in my experience (personal and observed) does not appear to come in response to idle curiosity. We’re told that ultimately God gives us ‘according to [our] desire[s]’ (Alma 29:4), for good and for bad (‘unto salvation or unto destruction’). And so much of our course in life appears to be governed by our desires, and the extent to which we’ve been able to refine and purify them.

1 Nephi 8

So much could obviously be discussed about Lehi’s vision of the tree of life (and Nephi’s vision that follows it), that it’s difficult to know what to single out. The very phenomenon of prophetic dreams is an interesting one; the Lord has most certainly used them as a means of revelation, as to Lehi here (and in 1 Nephi 2:1), or to Joseph, Pharaoh or even to Nebuchadnezzar in the Bible. For some people that seems to be the principle means by which they get such revelation. Most of my dreams are from a more mundane source.

One part does stick out:

And after they had partaken of the fruit of the tree they did cast their eyes about as if they were ashamed.

And I also cast my eyes round about, and beheld, on the other side of the river of water, a great and spacious building; and it stood as it were in the air, high above the earth.

And it was filled with people, both old and young, both male and female; and their manner of dress was exceedingly fine; and they were in the attitude of mocking and pointing their fingers towards those who had come at and were partaking of the fruit.

And after they had tasted of the fruit they were ashamed, because of those that were scoffing at them; and they fell away into forbidden paths and were lost.

1 Nephi 8:25-28

These people had clung to the rod of iron, made their way to the tree, and tasted of the tree of life and its goodness. But they still fell away, because of shame at the mocking of those in the great and spacious building.

Mockery is in great fashion at present, including in both political and religious discussions. It’s certainly a very effective rhetorical tool. But it is not one that establishes truth. You don’t need truth to win an argument with mockery. You just need enough people to jeer with you, and the targets to feel ashamed. And shame can drive people away from things they know to be good.

There’s not much that can stop the mockery of the great and spacious building: that’s left to the Lord’s timing. But in the meantime, I guess we’re in the situation Nephi describes a little later, when others (and the ‘we’ and ‘me’ suggests it includes Nephi) had made their way to the tree of life. Nephi states that others who had entered the building ‘did point the finger of scorn at me and those that were partaking of the fruit also; but we heeded them not’ (1 Nephi 8:33). We too have to somehow not pay attention to such mocking voices, especially when they’re trying to make us ashamed of something that we know to be good and true. We need to be true to God and our better selves, and to ignore the heckling crowd.

1 Nephi 1

My attention today fell on the following verses:

And he read, saying: Wo, wo, unto Jerusalem, for I have seen thine abominations! Yea, and many things did my father read concerning Jerusalem—that it should be destroyed, and the inhabitants thereof; many should perish by the sword, and many should be carried away captive into Babylon.

And it came to pass that when my father had read and seen many great and marvelous things, he did exclaim many things unto the Lord; such as: Great and marvelous are thy works, O Lord God Almighty! Thy throne is high in the heavens, and thy power, and goodness, and mercy are over all the inhabitants of the earth; and, because thou art merciful, thou wilt not suffer those who come unto thee that they shall perish!

1 Nephi 1:13-14

As I was reading this, it again seemed a bit of a strange dichotomy. Much of what Lehi reads in his vision is about the judgments coming upon Jerusalem and the forthcoming activity. And Lehi’s response is to rejoice (explicitly so in v.15), and among other things single out God’s mercy (twice in fact, particularly with the mention that he ‘wil[l] not suffer those who come unto [him] that they shall perish’). This seems at first glance a little odd.

Now it’s possible this reaction is to the other stuff he read that isn’t mentioned (the ‘great and marvelous things’), and we know from verse 19 that one of the things he read about is ‘the coming of a Messiah, and also the redemption of the world’. But verse 18 also emphasises that the principle subject of the ‘many marvelous things’ shown to Lehi ‘concern[ed] the destruction of Jerusalem’.

I think it’s possible there’s something else also going on here. Lehi’s original encounter with ‘a pillar of fire’ occurred because he was praying ‘in behalf of his people’ (vv.5-6). Now it’s easy to assume that ‘his people’ meant the people at Jerusalem, but I think its possible that this may be a more specific reference. Verse 4 recounts ‘many prophets’ coming to tell the people of Jerusalem, to ‘repent, or the great city of Jerusalem must be destroyed’. And we know, both from the Book of Mormon and the Bible, how such prophets such as Lehi and Jeremiah were received. Jeremiah 26:20-23 is particularly illustrative, where another prophet by the name of Urijah fled to Egypt for safety, but King Jehoiakim (Zedekiah’s brother and predecessor) sent agents after him to retrieve him, and once he was retrieved the king had Urijah killed.

Could Lehi have perhaps been praying on behalf of these prophets and those (like Lehi) who believed on them? If so, it’d make Lehi’s reaction to the forthcoming destruction – seeing it as a form of deliverance for those who were seeking to ‘come unto [him]’ (1 Nephi 1:14) – make much more sense, particularly as it’d be a direct answer to his actual question. Nor would this be the last time in the Book of Mormon that divine judgment on some be seen as providing deliverance for others, with perhaps the clearest association of these two concepts being seen in 1 Nephi 22:16-17 (and perhaps, thinking about it, it is no coincidence that concept comes up in the last chapter of this book if it’s also here in the first chapter).

Minor Notes:

The 2013 edition has changed the type-face, so that the introduction to the book of Nephi is in un-italicized text indicating it’s part of the sacred text, while chapter headings are not. It’s interesting that Nephi feels the need to spoil much of the ‘plot’ of 1 Nephi in advance, further indicating that telling a story is not his primary aim. It is interesting that Lehi’s vision of the Tree of Life and Nephi’s own vision, with associated discussions, are not mentioned when they occupy a considerable portion in the centre of the book.