Did Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ literally appear to Joseph Smith in Person?

My husband and I have some pretty amazing gospel discussions. One that we recently had was inspired by someone he met during his time in the Nevada Las Vegas mission. He has told me stories about his conversations with Dr. Jerry Ainsworth many times, and his book is one we enjoy having in our collection.

So imagine our surprise when we saw that Brother Ainsworth has a YouTube channel. I got to see for myself what some of the conversations my husband had with him were like.

One video in particular caught my attention, and has stuck with me since my husband showed it to me several days ago.

I had never before considered the question of whether the First Vision of Joseph Smith was anything other than a literal, physical appearance on the part of Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. In fact, the very idea that this experience was a vision alone, to me, sounded patently false and I refused to believe it. And because I've been in the Church long enough to know I should fact check weird things that other Mormons tell me, that's what I set about to do.

Initially, I started with the account of the First Vision in the Pearl of Great Price, and followed up with a quick check of the dictionary. And not just any dictionary. We have a copy of Webster's 1828 dictionary, which is what we use when analyzing anything written by the Prophet Joseph Smith, since it tends to provide the contextual meanings of words he would have understood in his day. And since the crux of Brother Ainsworth's argument is that the event is called the First "Vision," not the First "Visitation," I wanted to see if there was merit in splitting hairs with respect to this language.

What I found was that the word Vision has several different layers of meaning:

VI'SIONnoun s as z. [Latin visio, from video, visus.]
1. The act of seeing external objects; actual sight.
Faith here is turned into vision there.
2. The faculty of seeing; sight. vision is far more perfect and acute in some animals than in man.
3. Something imagined to be seen, though not real; a phantom; a specter.
No dreams, but visions strange.
4. In Scripture, a revelation from God; an appearance or exhibition of something supernaturally presented to the minds of the prophets, by which they were informed of future events. Such were the visions of Isaiah, of Amos, of Ezekiel, etc.
5. Something imaginary; the production of fancy.
6. Any thing which is the object of sight.

While Brother Ainsworth seems to have interpreted the First Vision via definition #4, there is no solid basis for doing this, based purely on the semantics of the word itself. There are five other equally valid definitions for the word Vision. To attribute one at the expense of the others requires evidence, and thorough examination of Joseph's words, as well as statements given by past and present Church leaders, and published Church materials.

So I began my examination of the multiple accounts of the First Vision, as published by the Church. The language Joseph used provides no direct statement as to how he interpreted the physical reality of his vision. To state that any lack of clarity on the matter is somehow evidence that that vision was not a literal interaction with the Divine is illogical. But I needed more information before I could make a case for anything else.

I turned to our private library of Church books and manuals. And I started digging. I checked multiple Pearl of Great Price commentaries. I checked every book I have on the writings and teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. I checked Seminary and Institute manuals. I checked the Missionary Library. I checked all the books we own by James E. Talmadge and LeGrand Richards. I even checked Mormon Doctrine by Bruce R. McConkie. Not my favorite reference to use, but it was the closest I came to a categorical statement by a Church leader that Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ appeared in person during the First Vision.

With all due respect to Elder McConkie, I needed to see some additional witnesses before I could let the matter drop.

That was when my husband came in. He saw me sitting on a stool, thumbing through yet another book, when he asked me a question that perplexed me more than my research question did.

"Even if Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ only appeared to Joseph in vision, it wouldn't take away from the truth of what Joseph gained from the experience. So why does it matter?"

"Because I want to know," I responded. I didn't know that curiosity existed for any other reason. "I'll ask someone at Church tomorrow. Maybe they'll have read something I haven't."

Fast forward to the end of Church. A member of the Stake Presidency is on the stand, and I approach him with my question. I spent the better part of the closing him trying to decide how to phrase it so they wouldn't think I was having some sort of faith crisis. The newest member of our bishopric was also there.

They couldn't think of anything that addresses my specific question, but they gave me some great search ideas to try and find the answer. The bishopric member even gave me some great ideas of pondering to do in the temple once it re-opens.

Before I turned to go, I ran into the same question my husband had asked me.

"Joseph could have seen Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ in a vision, and it wouldn't have diminished the reality of what he saw, and what they called him to do. So why does it matter?"

"Because I want to know," I responded. And having given this answer twice in less than 24 hours, my answer morphed in a way I hadn't anticipated at the outset.

I didn't just want to know anymore. Now I needed to know. I needed to know that if there was an answer to the be found, Heavenly Father would give it to me. I could sense I was close, and it was much too soon to give up.

I believe in the Priesthood. More importantly, I know that God sustains his priesthood holders. He inspires them in the counsel they give. And even when a piece of counsel seems patently obvious, I've seen in my life that when a priesthood leader makes a suggestion, I always learn something I need to know when I act on it. It may not be what I intended to learn, but it's always important.

This time was no different. I plugged away at Google for more than an hour before I remembered what the stake presidency member had told me to do. So I opened Google Advanced search, used the wording he suggested, restricted the search to LDS.org, and within a few minutes I had my answer multiple times over.

From President Gordon B. Hinckley, The Marvelous Foundation of Our Faith, given during the October 2002 General Conference:

We declare without equivocation that God the Father and His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, appeared in person to the boy Joseph Smith. 
When I was interviewed by Mike Wallace on the 60 Minutes program, he asked me if I actually believed that. I replied, “Yes, sir. That’s the miracle of it.” 
That is the way I feel about it. Our whole strength rests on the validity of that vision. It either occurred or it did not occur. If it did not, then this work is a fraud. If it did, then it is the most important and wonderful work under the heavens.

From Elder Joseph F. Merrill, Joseph Smith Did See God (from a talk given in April 1947 General Conference, originally titled Did Joseph Smith See God?) Republishd in the Ensign, which links to the original in the LDS Scripture Citation Index, published by BYU.

Thus, according to his story, Joseph Smith, the fourteen-year-old lad, saw the Father and the Son and heard their voices. So far as the records indicate, this was the most glorious vision ever given to mortal man. Never before had both Father and Son appeared simultaneously to any mortal man. I have called your attention to Joseph's story because of its extreme importance to our faith—to Mormonism, which we testify is the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. So I ask again, did Joseph Smith really and in fact see God? I believe all of us can profit by asking ourselves this question, occasionally at least. The correct answer can be stimulating and satisfying to us.
Elder Merrill spends the rest of his talk answering this question in detail. I highly recommend it.

And perhaps the most appropriate of all, I found this doctrine stated clearly and concisely in Lesson 1 of the Primary 5 manual. At this point, I could tell the Lord never intended this to be a question for anyone--especially not members of his restored Church.

Help the children understand that the First Vision is the foundation of a testimony of the true church of Jesus Christ. Once we believe that Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ actually appeared and talked to Joseph Smith, then we can be sure that everything else the Prophet taught or restored to us is also the truth.

The problem with some of us is we get tangled up in our own sophistry, without allowing the simple truths to which the Spirit has born testimony to speak for themselves.

Did Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ appear physically, in person, as a personal visitation to Joseph Smith?


Have the Church and its leaders taught that point consistently throughout history, in multiple settings, and to every age group?


And to respond again to that question, "Why does it matter?"

Because now, as a result of my study, the Spirit can testify to me of the First Vision in a more profound way than he could before. I'd never considered this question so directly, and without that openness he could not deepen my testimony. 

I see how directly the First Vision is connected to so many truths I've come to believe about the nature of God the Father and his Son. Through the process of asking a question, one that caused me to admit something I didn't know about a fundamental truth I take for granted, I was able to receive personal revelation to deepen my faith.

I know that Heavenly Father answers prayers. I know that through the power of the Holy Ghost and the leaders he calls in his stead, he also answers questions. Heavenly Father has answered more of my questions than I could ever count. And I know that when you trust him with your questions in sincere prayer, with a willingness to study it out in your mind and heart, with diligent study and a willingness to ask for help, you will receive an answer.

I leave my witness with your in the name of Jesus Christ. AMEN

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