I was a young child in primary when I first learned about Joseph Smith. I remember the vibrant poster from that lesson, where an oddly dressed man knelt in a lush grove of trees, shielding his eyes against a bright light above him.
A few more years of Sunday School and I learned that the man in that picture was little more than a boy, actually, and that in the bright light above him was God.
As I approached my fourteenth birthday, my youth leaders reminded me that Joseph Smith was 14, too, when this event happened. But he was unlike any fourteen-year-old I had ever met. He seemed very serious, and worried about grown up things, like truth and faith. In fact, it was a deep and troubling question about religion – which of them should he join? – that had led him to the grove of trees in that picture from primary.
I couldn’t grasp the significance of his experience yet, but I was beginning to understand the urgency of his question.
At that time, I was going to the private school of another Christian denomination. I took compulsory Bible classes there with a pastor who was kind to me, but extremely critical of my religion. The bulletin boards at the back of his chapel featured a litany of anti-Latter-day Saint material, which confused me.
Why were people so angry about my church?
That’s what I asked the pastor one day, and after a short discussion, I could tell that my relentless questions were beginning to annoy him. He ended the conversation in a gruff by challenging me to go back to my church and examine it carefully – to find out exactly what it is that I believe.
I took that challenge to heart and began my research in my early morning seminary classes.
In time, as my view of the world matured - and with the pastor’s words still in mind - I began to understand a pivotal truth: Much of what I believe, as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, hangs on accepting that two centuries ago, young Joseph Smith spoke face-to-face with Heavenly Father and His Son Jesus Christ.
If I believe that, then I believe God is real and loves us. Then I believe in prayer . . . and in miracles. Then I can accept Joseph Smith was a prophet who translated the Book of Mormon. And then it would follow that the church he set up is, in fact, the restored fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ - and therefore, the only true church on the face of the earth.
No wonder my school’s pastor disliked us so much. What an audacious claim! But I decided then, with a warmth in my heart, that yes, I could believe it.
It would be many years before I knew for sure.
I was barely out of my teens when I stopped going to church. I never rejected what I’d learned in the gospel, but a series of lifestyle choices led me away from active participation, and before I knew it, well over a decade had passed since I had last concerned myself with religion. And then – I found myself in dire need of a spiritual rebirth.
I figured I’d eventually return to the church of my youth, but I thought I owed it to myself to investigate other religions first. Over several months, I accompanied friends to different worship services, and while I enjoyed the experiences, I came away from each meeting with an inexplicable heavy heart.
I wondered if young Joseph had felt the same way when he explored different faiths, but when I was finally ready to take my burdens to the Lord, I didn’t need to ask which religion to join. I prayed instead for the courage to repent, and to overcome the sense of inadequacy that had kept me away from the Lord’s Church for so long.
A strange thing happened that night. I had turned the lights out before kneeling to pray, and for the first few minutes, I felt nothing – as if I was self-consciously talking to myself. This was not how I remembered prayer as a child.
Suddenly, the darkness around me began to intensify. It was ominous and cold. It scared me.
I opened my eyes and switched the lamp on, but I still couldn’t shake an overwhelming feeling of dread. In tears now, I desperately pleaded with my Heavenly Father, and at the back of my mind I saw a boy, kneeling in a grove of trees, struggling with the adversary as he tried to commune with God.
After what felt like an hour of tearful supplication, the darkness finally broke and then retreated. I was overcome with relief and fatigue, as I imagined young Joseph had been . . . just before he saw a light descend from the heavens.
But for me, that ‘light’ came in the form of music. As I continued to pray, I was distracted by a familiar melody repeating in my mind. I recognized it as a hymn from Church but couldn’t remember which one. I got up to search for an old hymn book that I knew was still on a bookshelf somewhere in my house. When I found it and flicked through its pages, it immediately opened to the correct song, and then my eyes fell on the words:
“Do what is right, be faithful and fearless.
Onward, press onward, the goal is in sight.
Eyes that are wet now, ere long will be tearless.
Blessings await you in doing what’s right!”
Two hundred years ago, after a trial of his faith, Joseph Smith’s fervent prayer was answered – in the flesh – by Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ. That momentous event led to the restoration of the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ, who heals and redeems and is our only path to exaltation.
Of these timeless truths, I am a modern-day witness.