Joseph Smith was born in 1805 in Sharon, Vermont. By 1820 he and his family were living in Manchester, New York, a frontier area with a rapidly growing population. This was an auspicious time to be living in Western New York State because it coincided with a period that historians would later dub the Second Great Awakening.
In Joseph Smith History 1:5, Brother Joseph describes it as “an unusual excitement on the subject of religion.” That’s putting it mildly. Have you ever seen a depiction of one of those old school tent revivals? You know, the ones with a charismatic preacher with participation by members of the congregation/audience? Lots of singing, lots of praying, lots of people being saved. Now imagine that but on a regular basis, by every Christian denomination in the area.
Charles Finney, an evangelist of the period, later referred to Central and Western New York State as the “burnt district” or, as termed by other historians the “burned over district.” Finney used it as a description of the area, that it had been so heavily evangelized that there was no one left there to convert. When I read that term it immediately called to mind the Holy Ghost and the baptism by fire. The Spirit had awoken in the people of that area and God’s power was manifest in their search for truth and Holy Fire touched everyone’s life.
That search, that Fire, inspired a 14 year-old boy to kneel down and pray. That prayer’s answer changed the world. Or, well, it changed my world when, 168 years later I attended my first Mormon service in Oscoda, Michigan. I was 9 years old.
The account of the First Vision and, really, the entirety of Joseph Smith History has always rung a bell deep inside of me. I recognize him. I recognize that boy because I was him and he was me in so many ways. I, too, sought the Truth with a capital T. I sought God. When I was a missionary we described that kind of seeking as the Light of Christ, a way to identify the good from the bad, the right from the wrong, etc., etc. But for me it was more of a tether, something embedded deep in my chest that pulled me after it. As I seek it pulls me along, my unerring compass point.
I’ve never questioned the account of the First Vision because when I first heard it I felt like I already knew it. Of course God was distinct from Christ was distinct from the Holy Ghost. Of course They all Three visited Joseph that day. Of course.
I’ve questioned a lot of things about Joseph Smith but I’ve never doubted that central fact. And the key to his story, the key to Restoration, is that he thought to ask. If you’ll allow me to extrapolate for a moment, I can see how he was led to that moment, how the great fire of the Great Awakening burned over and around him, how he attended service after service with family and friends, seeking for and seeing God in all of them. But not all of God. I can see how the questions started to form, how he wondered, if the Body of Christ was one, there could be so many churches who had similar but distinct doctrines. How could they all be right and all be wrong all at the same time?
So he took God at His word. He asked.
I sought the same knowledge without even knowing it. I can distinctly remember sitting in a service at the Methodist church down the street and around the corner from my childhood home, listening to sermons or sitting in Bible studies, and having moments of questioning, of doubt. I loved it there, I was as active in the congregation as a child could be, but even then I had little questions that wriggled in my mind, things that didn’t make sense that I couldn’t really voice. I was seeking without understanding what I was looking for.
And then, one summer Sunday morning in Northern Michigan my mother offered to take me to church with her. I was always happy to go to church so I agreed. Even though we were going to a different kind of church. My mother had been an inactive Mormon for years, had married a Baptist, and had agreed to let all of her children attend that Methodist church, but she had never left her faith. So that Sunday I attended the three-hour block of Mormon service, Sacrament to Sunday School to Sharing Time. I heard things there that made sense, doctrine I had never heard before.
When I climbed into the car afterwards I told my mom I wanted to be baptized. And I was a few months later.
That moment was my Sacred Grove. God spoke to my heart and that testimony remains steady in my heart. This was the place for me, this was my home, this was my God. I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I can never deny it.
I had been burned over. And I continue to be so. Conversion is a continual process. Though that one moment continues to define me, so do a hundred others. For me, one of the many reasons why Mormonism will forever be my home is that there is a vibrant thread of seeking that is woven into our faith. Both James and Moroni promise us that if we ask God we will be answered, about anything, everything. We don’t have to be content, we don’t have to be passive, we can learn and grow and act.
So, yeah, I grok Joseph Smith. I get him. He’s this guy who dared, who asked the big questions and got some really big answers. He’s also the dude who sometimes overshot the mark, who stumbled, who perhaps led himself astray, just a little. But he never stopped seeking. I don’t always agree with his choices but I recognize that so many of the things–the translation of the Book of Mormon, the organization of the Church, D&C 76, the Book of Abraham, and a whole host of others–have fundamentally changed my life and my understanding of the universe. For the better.
Right now it seems like we’re at a crossroads for Mormonism. There’s something burning inside of us, the Spirit perhaps ready to change us once again. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I can feel it inside of me, a seeking, a questing, a desire for revelation, for more. That’s the promise of Mormonism, that knowledge never ends, that there is always something more waiting to be revealed. We just have to be willing to dare.
I can’t wait to see what happens next.