“‘The Vision’” Revelations in Context (2016)
“The Vision,” Revelations in Context
While traveling east on a mission during the early spring of 1832, Samuel H. Smith and Orson Hyde stopped for dinner at the home of recent convert Lincoln Haskins.1 Haskins, who lived in the far-western reaches of New York, had just returned from a journey to Ohio, where he met Joseph Smith.2 The timing of Haskins’s late-February visit to Kirtland and Hiram was providential: Just days earlier, the Prophet and Sidney Rigdon had experienced a momentous vision.
Haskins likely heard about this vision from Joseph or one of the few other men who were present when it occurred on February 16 at the home of John Johnson in Hiram. Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon were there working on a revision of the New Testament. Earlier revelations made it “apparent that many important points, touching the Salvation of man, had been taken from the Bible.” According to Joseph’s history, the two men were pondering the significance of a passage on the Resurrection found in John 5:29 when “the Lord touched the eyes of our understandings” and they witnessed the vision.3
“Not a sound nor motion [was] made by anyone but Joseph and Sidney,” recalled Philo Dibble, one of those present. “I saw the glory and felt the power, but did not see the vision.”4 Dibble and as many as 12 others listened as Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon described aloud what they saw.
“The Vision,” as it became known, contained a sweeping description of what awaited humankind after death. It outlined varying degrees of glory divided into three kingdoms as the inheritances for the vast majority of God’s children; revealed that consignment to eternal punishment would be the fate of only a small few; and explained that the righteous would receive the Father’s fulness: “Wherefore as it is writen they are Gods even the sons of God wherefore all things are theres.”5
Haskins shared his elation over this expansive vision with his guests during their visit to his home. “He told us that he had seen Joseph & Sidney & that they had had a vision & that they had seen great & marvilous things,” Samuel Smith wrote in his journal.6
A few days after their visit with Haskins, the missionaries “had the privlidge of reading“ a written account of “the Vision” when they met Seth and Joel Johnson, two Church members who carried with them a precious handwritten copy they had made while in Kirtland.7 These exchanges demonstrate the excitement with which some early converts treated “the Vision.” But not everyone shared their enthusiasm.
The view of the afterlife laid out in “the Vision” contrasted starkly with the beliefs of most Christians at the time. A majority believed in a strict heaven-and-hell theology of the world to come: those obedient to the gospel of Jesus Christ would be saved, but the wicked would be consigned to eternal punishment.8 However, there were a growing number who felt that this view was inconsistent with other biblical teachings about God’s mercy, justice, and power to save.
For example, a young Congregationalist named Caleb Rich became troubled when his minister taught that Christ would have a mere few “trophies of his Mission to the world, while his antagonist would have countless millions.” Rich feared that his own spiritual “situation appeared more precarious than a ticket in a lottery.”9 He eventually rejected his minister’s doctrine and embraced what is known as Universalism. Simply put, Universalists believed that God would not eternally punish sinners but that all would eventually be saved in God’s kingdom. Joseph Smith’s father and his grandfather Asael Smith held Universalist views.10
Most Christians felt that Universalism went too far, that its teaching of universal salvation removed all incentive to keep God’s commandments and would lead to an immoral, dissolute life. Many early converts to the Church agreed and may have felt confirmed in their view by certain Book of Mormon passages.11 However, Joseph Smith’s vision of the afterlife appeared to some of these converts to advocate Universalist teachings. Consequently, as people like Lincoln Haskins and Joel and Seth Johnson began to carry word of “the Vision” to the scattered branches of the Church, it created a stir.
Some outside observers scoffed at the newly revealed doctrine. One Christian newspaper responded to “the Vision” by sarcastically claiming that Joseph Smith sought to “disgrace Universalism by professing … the salvation of all men.”12 But more disconcerting to the Prophet were the reactions of some Church members.
“It was a great trial to many,” Brigham Young remembered. “Some apostatized because God … had a place of salvation, in due time, for all.”13 Young himself had difficulty accepting the idea: “My traditions were such, that when the Vision came first to me, it was directly contrary and opposed to my former education. I said, Wait a little. I did not reject it; but I could not understand it.”14 His brother Joseph Young also confessed, “I could not believe it at first. Why the Lord was going to save every body.”15
Perhaps in a knee-jerk reaction to what seemed to be hints of Universalism, some early members overlooked the subtle beauty of “the Vision.” Avoiding the extremes of Universalism and the orthodox view of heaven and hell, it suggested that the sufferings of the disobedient would indeed ultimately end but that the Lord also held out the promise of unimaginable rewards for those who are “valient in the testamony of Jesus.”16
Many of those who stumbled at the vision simply needed some time to ponder it or the patient explanation of a missionary or spiritual leader. Joseph Young remembered, “After I had prayed over it and Joseph had explained it I could see it was nothing but good sense accompanying the power of God.”17 Brigham Young had to “think and pray, to read and think, until [he] knew and fully understood it for [himself].”18
In May or June 1832, missionary John Murdock encountered resistance to the ideas in “the Vision” while in Orange, Ohio (near Cleveland): “The brethren had just received the Revilation called the vision & were stumbling at it.” Murdock acted the part of spiritual mentor: “I called them togather & confirmed them in the truth.”19
Later, Murdock and fellow missionary Orson Pratt encountered a Brother Landon in Geneseo, New York, who “said the vision was of the Devil.” Landon had influenced his branch to reject the new revelation as well. The missionaries spent a few days with the branch. “Br Orson led in explination of the vision & other revelation followed by my self & Br Lyman,” wrote Murdock. Landon soon “acknowledged what we taught to be true.”20
Joseph Smith sent the branch in Geneseo a letter admonishing them to have faith in the revelation. He warned, “Where there are contentions, and unbelief in the sacred things communic[ated] to the saints by revelation, that discord, hardness, jealousies, and numberless evils will inevitably issue.”21
The prophet learned from this experience just how delicate the testimonies of many new converts could be and counseled missionaries to take a milk-before-meat approach to teaching gospel principles (see 1 Corinthians 3:2). Prior to the departure of the Twelve Apostles to England, Joseph Smith urged them to “remain silent concerning the gathering, the vision, and the Book of Doctrine and Covenants until such time as the work was fully established.”22 However, it proved difficult for some members to contain their enthusiasm for the new revelation.
Heber C. Kimball, echoing Joseph Smith’s counsel, encouraged his fellow missionaries to keep to the introductory principles of the gospel. Kimball had helped convert a minister, Timothy Matthews, in Bedford, England, and established an appointment for his baptism. But another elder, John Goodson, “contrary to [Kimball’s] counsel and positive instructions, and without advising with any one, read to Mr. Matthews, the vision … which caused him to stumble.” Matthews failed to keep his appointment and never joined the Church.23
While a few early Church members struggled to accept “the Vision,” many embraced it unreservedly. William W. Phelps, Church printer in Missouri, published it in the Church-owned periodical The Evening and the Morning Star in July 1832, calling it “the greatest news that was ever published to man.”24
Wilford Woodruff, who joined the Church in 1833, recalled, “When I read the vision … it enlightened my mind and gave me great joy. It appeared to me that the God who revealed that principle unto man was wise, just, and true—possessed both the best of attributes, and good sense, and knowledge. I felt He was consistent with both love, mercy, justice, and judgment; and I felt to love the Lord more than ever before in my life.”25
Perhaps some of those who embraced “the Vision” were predisposed by their past beliefs.26 Some, like Joseph Smith’s father, may have had Universalist leanings. But while this new vision shared some similarities with the thought and writings of the Universalists, it departed from and expanded upon these ideas in new and inspired ways. Joseph Smith’s history concluded, “Nothing could be more pleasing to the Saint … than the light which burst upon the world, through the foregoing vision. … The sublimity of the ideas; the purity of the language; the scope for action; the continued duration for completion, in order that the heirs of salvation, may confess the Lord and bow the knee; The rewards for faithfulnes & the punishments for sins, are so much beyond the narrow mindedness of men, that every honest man is constrained to exclaim; It came from God.”27