Sunday, March 9, 2014

Why I Believe: Evidence Eight: Joseph's Simple Faith To Believe The Scriptures

101 Reasons Why I Believe Joseph Smith Was A Prophet

Evidence Eight:   
Joseph’s Simple Faith To Believe The Scriptures© 

The First Vision did not come out of a vacuum.  Nearly everyone knows that one of the catalysts which led to it was a passage of scripture–James 1:5.  What is not as well known is the degree of faith which Joseph Smith placed in what he read in the Bible and that other passages reinforced the message of James.  Joseph possessed the simple faith to believe the scriptures and he had it from a very young age.  His belief in what the scriptures say also played a role in his second great spiritual experience, the coming of Moroni.  Many other examples of his trust in scripture punctuate his life.(1) Today lets explore what we know about the influence of the scriptures in bringing about the First Vision.

Unlike many of Joseph’s other visions, there were no witnesses or fellow observes of the First Vison.  So it seems almost divinely ironical, that as historian Richard Anderson has pointed out:
His account of that sacred experience is not only his best-documented vision of Deity, but there are few spiritual experiences in world history that rival the First Vision in rich detail and full reporting.(2)
Most readers are aware that there are a number of renditions of the First Vision.  Since the late 1960s when knowledge of these accounts came to the attention of the Church and outsiders, they have been the center of a great deal of study and controversy.  However, when we take one simple question to our reading of these chronicles we come away from the endeavor with an important insight into the heart and mind of Joseph Smith and with a new appreciation for why he was called to be the Prophet of the Restoration of the Gospel.  That question?  “What can we learn from the recitals of the First Vision about the role which the Holy Scriptures played in influencing him to pray?”

Evidence of his involvement and belief in the scriptures

The oldest of the reports left by Joseph Smith of his early spiritual experiences was produced in 1832.  In many ways it is the simplest and most unsophisticated portrayal which lends a certain innocence and purity to this memoir that appeals to me.  More importantly, it contains several important statements relative to our subject.  In them Joseph refers to the Bible as a “sacred depository,” a clue to his esteem for the Bible. As he tells the story we see that he learned some important concepts from the scriptures which bolstered his faith in God.  The italicized portions of the following quotations highlight these points.
Excerpt 1: “...about the age of twelve years my mind became serously imprest with regard to the all important concerns for the welfare of my immortal soul which led me to searching the scriptures believing as I was taught, that they contained the word of God.  Thus applying them and my intimate acquaintance with those of different denominations led me to marvel excedingly for I discovered that they did not adorn their profession by a holy walk and Godly conversation agreeable to what I found contained in that sacred depository....”
Excerpt 2: “Thus from the age of twelve to fifteen I pondered many things in my heart concerning the situation of the world of mankind....  My mind became exceedingly distressed for I become convicted of my sins and by searching the Scriptures I found that mankind did not come unto the Lord...”
Excerpt 3:  “...I felt to mourn for my own sins and for the sins of the world for I learned in the scriptures that God was the same yesterday to day and forever that he was no respecter to persons for he was God....”(3)
In these excerpts we see several important ways which the scriptures were interwoven into his quest.  First, is the rather remarkable fact that Joseph Smith had been reading and thinking about the scriptures for a long period in his early youth–from age 12-15!  Second, they demonstrate that he had a soberness of mind similar to young Mormon in the Book of Mormon.  (Mor. 1:15)  Even at that age he was cognizant of his own inner state and observant of the religious conditions of the time.  This maturity is unusual for a boy of this age, but it is an important ingredient in possessing firm faith. Thirdly, during this period the scriptures were a major element of Joseph’s thinking about the universe, the present religious situation, and his personal status with God.

As he continued the narrative he tells us of other important principles he learned, the most important of which we can now see from hindsight were about God himself.  These expressions were all paraphrases of or allusions to scripture.  The list of what he said he understood includes:

  • God is unchanging.  He answers prayers.  (Heb. 13:8)
  • Anyone may approach God, since he is no respecter of persons.  (Acts. 10:34)
  • Those who worship him should do so in spirit and in truth.  (Jn. 4:23-24 )(4)

James 1:5

The 1832 history does not mention the now famous James 1:5 passage, however, the 1838 report is the most important of the seven of the nine contemporary accounts which name this passage as decisive for Joseph Smith. This emphasis highlights the great importance of this passage which profoundly influenced his actions and thereby changed the world.

Here Joseph once again refers to his youthful emotional reaction to religious excitements in his area of New York.  (See JS-H 1:8-9.)  He goes on to say that one day while reading the epistle of James he encountered verse 5 of the first chapter.  It deeply affected him and his description suggests the power and influence of the Holy Ghost came upon the lad.
Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man that 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.... At length I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion, or else I must do as James directs....  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.  So, in accordance with this, my determination to ask of God, I retired to the woods to make the attempt.(5)
What did Joseph Smith learn from James 1:5-6 that would have increased his faith because he believed what he was reading?  This passage further enlightened young Joseph with three things about God in addition to what he had learned from the scriptures listed above.  First, if a man lacks wisdom, and he felt he did, he should ask God.  Second, God gives liberally to all men who ask.  Third, God does not upbraid those who ask.(6)

He now possessed six important truths about God, several of which overlapped each other conceptually, but because he believed them they greatly shaped the course of events to follow. This is exactly as it should have been for him, and should be for us.  After all this is one of the major purposes of Holy Writ.  It is to cause us to act not just emote.  God reveals himself and his will so we know what to do not just what to believe. Reflection upon these ideas spotlighted in his study and thinking prior to going into the grove to pray all lead to one conclusion– Joseph should trust God; he hears and answers prayers.

Twice in the above quotation Joseph refers to the conclusion to which his reflections upon James 1:5 led him.  If he had been reticent or fearful, or both, now believing that God liberally gives wisdom to those who lack it and he will not chastize the supplicant, Joseph concluded that he “might venture” to pray.  In an 1842 letter to Chicago editor John Wentworth, Joseph confirmed that he not only believed the passage but it hiked his confidence:  “Believing the word of God, I had confidence in the declaration of James–....”(7)   The record indicates in clear language that encouraged by these ideas he decided to act.

The provision of James 1:6-7 should also be considered

Verses six and seven of James chapter one must also be considered in any serious discussion of the role the scriptures played in Joseph’s life leading to the First Vision.  They contain a proviso that we do not often discuss in relationship to Joseph Smith, but which speak directly to his case.
But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering.  For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed.  For let not that man think he shall receive anything of the Lord.”  (Emphasis added.)
In light of this demanding standard it is readily apparent that Joseph received the correct message from the scriptures; a message that bolstered his natural faith in the word of the Lord. The scriptures moved him from enlightenment and understanding to action. Moreover, if we accept his account of the result of his prayer–the First Vision–then it follows that he must have met the qualifications of these latter verses. But, we are not left without further evidence to substantiate this conclusion.

The depth of his commitment to get an answer

It is significant that twice in the 1838 statement Joseph mentions his “determination to ask.”  However, he did not come to the decision in haste.  He reflected upon the passage over and over again.  Doubtless the other passage he referred to in his 1832 statement were included in those reflections.  Two statements, both from 1835, speak to the depth of Joseph’s commitment to get an answer to his prayer. In 1835 Oliver Cowdery, the Church’s first historian, wrote several letters about early church history to W. W. Phelps, then editor of the Church’s newspaper The Messenger and Advocate. Recalling events leading to the First Vision he wrote:
“...our brother was urged forward and strengthened in the determination to know for himself in the certainty and reality of pure and holy religion.  And it is only necessary for me to say, that while this excitement continued, he continued to call upon the Lord in secret for a full manifestation of divine approbation, and for, to him, the all important information, if a Supreme being did exist, to have an assurance that he was accepted of him."(8)
The second is found in Joseph's 9 November 1835 Journal.  He said, “...information was what I most desired at this time, and with a fixed determination to obtain it, I called upon the Lord...”(9)  Not only had the scriptures brought him to the “conclusion” that he must take his questions to God in prayer, they also strengthened his “determination” to do so.

"Believing," "confidence," and "determination" are strong active words which tell us something important about the mental attitude and quality of faith which Joseph took with him into the "Sacred Grove" in the Spring of 1820.  What wonderful things the Scriptures can produce in the heart and mind of a fourteen-year-old!

The insights gained from the various retellings of the First Vision story which play up Joseph’s belief in the scriptures and the workings of the Lord in guiding him to passages which would bolster that faith and focus it to a greater degree in believing that God hears and answers prayer, strengthen’s my own faith that he was a Prophet of God.  Vance Havner, one of my favorite Baptist ministers unwittingly left a statement which wonderfully summarizes the point of this essay.  He wrote:
“After all, the Word of God yields its deepest secrets not to scholarly analysis but to simple faith that dares to “let God be true, but every man a liar.”  After the wise and prudent, even among the orthodox, have argued at length over this verse and that, God raises up some nonentity who dares to believe God’s bold, brave words, and puts all the rest of us to shame.  Few of us ever stand with all our weight on the Word of God.  We pretend to, but in a crisis we usually make some concession to human weakness, and the Word does not profit us as it might, being mixed with unbelief in us who hear it.”(10)
Thank God for Joseph Smith.  Lets think together again, soon.


1 One example: Young William Taylor once asked Joseph if he got frightened “when all those hounding wolves are after you?”  Joseph said, “No, I am not afraid; the Lord said he would protect me, and I have full confidence in his word.” William Taylor, Young Woman's Journal, 17 (December 1906), pp. 547-548.

2  Richard L. Anderson, "Joseph Smith's Testimony of The First Vision," Ensign, April 1996, 10.

3 Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1984), 4-6.  I have not corrected the spelling.

4 Jessee, Personal Writings, 5-6.

5 JS-H 1:12-14.

6 Very similar precepts are taught in Luke 11:9-13.

7 HC, 4:536.

8  Oliver Cowdery, "Letter IV, to W. W. Phelps, Esq.," Messenger and Advocate, 1 (February 1835), 78, emphasis added.

9 Dean C. Jessee, The Papers of Joseph Smith: Volume 2, Journal, 1832-1842, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book,1992), 69, entry for 9 November 1835, emphasis added.

10  Vance Havner, The Secret of Christian Joy, (New York: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1938), p. 23, bold emphasis added. Havner said this in an essay or sermon on how modern “believers” privately interpret, misinterpret, and take the life out of scripture. Five decades after Havner’s statement, Mormon scholar Stephen Robinson wrote a best-selling book in Mormonism titled Believing Christ: The Parable of the Bicycle and Other Good News, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992).  It’s focus was not just believing in Christ, but believing what he says.

No comments:

Post a Comment