The reality of the first vision occurring precisely as described in the Pearl of Great Price is deeply ingrained—some would say, inculcated—in Mormon culture. Instructions given to church leaders and educators by Ezra Taft Benson on this point were unambiguous:
“You should always bear testimony to the truth of the First Vision. Joseph Smith did see the Father and the Son. They conversed with him as he said they did. Any leader who, without reservation, cannot declare his testimony that God and Jesus Christ appeared to Joseph Smith can never be a true leader, a true shepherd.”
In 1858, a young woman named Louisa walked to the edge of the Mill Dam in Boston, Massachusetts and contemplated suicide. A self-described spinster, unemployed, and having recently lost a sister to rheumatic heart disease, she didn’t see a way forward. But, as she later told a friend, she stepped back from the abyss because she realized, “There is work for me, and I’ll have it.”
The work she desired was that of a writer, but little was to be found. Her family’s impoverished circumstances, her gender, and the inherent difficulty of penetrating the world of publishing were formidable obstacles. Nevertheless, she did have the good fortune of growing up in the heart of literary New England and, through friends, had access to a vast array of books. In addition, her father interacted socially with poets such as Longfellow and Lowell, and considered Emerson his best friend. Henry David Thoreau even took Louisa and her siblings on nature walks.
While every member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is acquainted with the First Vision, few are familiar with its history. By “history” I mean the role it has played in defining the mission and theology of the church. And like most history, it’s a bit messy.
I suffer from chronic pain. I have a degenerative joint and bone disease, which necessitated three major surgeries over the past 48 months. Each operation entailed the installation of metallic support structures in different parts of my body. A fourth procedure is scheduled for this summer.
I also have severe arthritis and a hereditary neurological disorder for which there is no known cure and no effective treatments. It causes loss of strength and extreme discomfort in my lower legs and feet, and will continue to worsen as I age. I could go on, but you get the general picture.
A story’s title can prompt the reader to focus on certain aspects of the tale at the expense others, potentially masking its actual meaning. And when the author of the story is not the person who names it—as is the case with Jesus’ parables—the risk of misinterpretation increases. A careful reading of The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard reveals that its title is, indeed, a misnomer:
For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.
The full meaning of an event chronicled in the scriptures will sometimes elude us if we are not acquainted with the historical, political, chronological, and geographical setting in which it unfolds. Such is the case with the story of “The Woman Taken in Adultery” found in the eighth chapter of John.
While in Jerusalem near the end of his ministry, Christ came early in the morning to the temple. Disciples and curiosity seekers soon gathered round and he began to teach them. In the middle of his sermon Jesus was rudely interrupted by some scribes and Pharisees who came with a woman in tow. Depositing her at his feet they said: “Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?”
Healing the blind was one of the most frequent miracles performed by Christ during his earthly ministry. But one of those divine interventions sets itself apart from the rest: The Healing of the Blind Man at Bethsaida, which can only be found in the Gospel of St. Mark.
Bethsaida was a town located on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. When Jesus arrived there, the locals brought to him a blind man and asked the Savior to heal his affliction. Christ first led him out of the village and then put saliva on his eyes after which he laid his hands on him. Then he asked, “Do you see anything?” The man replied, “I see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again. This time when the man opened his eyes, he saw everything clearly.
Towards the end of October 1702, the prominent New England Puritan Minister, Cotton Mather, was worried. His preoccupation was not with the ghosts and goblins associated with Halloween, as one might have suspected given his role in the Salem witch trials a decade earlier. Rather, his mind was focused on another invisible purveyor of death: smallpox.
In 1864, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had a serious problem in the Sandwich Islands, what today we call Hawaii. The head of the church’s mission there had abused his stewardship and needed to be replaced. Elders Lorenzo Snow and Ezra T. Benson of the Quorum of the Twelve were dispatched to set things in order. To assist them in this endeavor, they recruited a young man who had just returned from a three-year mission in England and who had previously served a mission in Hawaii, where he learned the language and became well acquainted with the islands and their inhabitants.
After a long voyage, the party’s ship lay anchored in a channel at their destination. The seas in this region were rough, and traversing them could be dangerous unless you had the right kind of boat, were familiar with the currents, and knew the location of a man-made breakwater. Our young missionary possessed this knowledge, which he shared with his companions, recommending that they enlist the help of the locals and their specially designed boats to get ashore. But Elders Snow and Benson would have none of this.
Winston Churchill was a passionate student of history and wrote extensively on the subject, including celebrated multi-volume accounts of the two world wars. An important lesson he derived from his studies is captured in one of his most famous quotes: “The longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward.”
This mindset is a prerequisite to divining the meaning of biblical prophecies, which are less about the future and more about the past and what we need to learn from it. And there is no better illustration of this principle than the second oracle of Simeon chronicled in Luke.