“The Mormons base their religion on the visions of Joseph Smith.” This passing remark I read the other day from a writer who was not familiar with our church struck me as a profoundly simple summary of our religion. Take away the visions of Joseph Smith and what have we got? Nothing – much of our religion is found in the Book of Mormon and yet much of it is not.
Some have compared the LDS Church with the Jehovah’s Witnesses because they are both religions that started in America in the 19th Century. But you can search in vain for claims to visions or revelation in the history of Charles Taze Russell, founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. His organization was formed as a Bible study group with no special claims of divine authority.
Another American religious group that formed in the 19th century, the Seventh-day Adventists, followed the same path of establishment by the Bible studies of William Miller. Joseph Smith, on the other hand, made no secret to his claims that he had been visited first by God and Jesus and then by angels – lots of them. Now, that’s something that you don’t hear about every day.
Visits from celestial beings
I would say that our claim to visits from celestial beings is very remarkable. In fact, perhaps this claim is one of the most unique things about our church. Sure, other churches teach that you can receive the Holy Spirit and be influenced by angels, but not many teach that angels have come to visit their founder multiple times, providing direction and instructions on how to set up a church.
Since visits by angels are not common occurrences in most people’s lives, it stands to reason that this is both a curiosity and a point of some ridicule or scorn. When it comes right down to it, if a friend were to ask you about angelic visitations and how they work, what would you say? I have never been visited by an angel, at least not that I am aware of, so I can’t say just how this works.
And yet I believe that Joseph Smith told the truth when he said he was visited by God, Jesus, and a multitude of angels. We also believe that Joseph Smith was very much a visionary man who received literally hundreds of visions and other revelations, all inspired or given of God. How many visions have you received? How many people do you know who profess divine visions?
Claims of mental illness
In an attempt to explain away Joseph’s claims to visions, some have suggested that he suffered from seizures of some kind, perhaps epileptic. Others have said that he had a vivid imagination or was just a really good liar. If someone were to present themselves to the world today with claims of receiving visits from angels and visions from God, most of us would say he is crazy.
I know I would be very skeptical if a friend, neighbor or work associate were to share with me that he had seen visions. People just don’t do that today for fear of being placed in the local mental hospital for observation. We would say someone like this is delusional, suffering from some form of mental illness such as psychosis or schizophrenia, causing fantastic hallucinations.
Most people who hear voices in their head don’t like this experience and seek help to deal with it. Yet Joseph Smith claimed that God spoke to him over and over again for years and years as He told him how to set up the church that he formed. I don’t hear voices in my head on a regular basis, but I can say that there are times I think I have felt inspired with ideas, words and phrases.
Joseph Smith spoke for God
So I guess a big part of accepting the claims of Joseph Smith is deciding for yourself if he was crazy, delusional or just an incredibly talented manipulator of the people around him. Most people in the world who are religious believe in some sort of supernatural communications from Deity to man. Most religious people look for ways to understand divine messages in their life.
How much do you agree with the following statement? “Yes, I believe the leaders of my church receive regular communication from God.” How about these? “I know that God has revealed Himself to the founder of my church. I am certain that He continues to guide the leaders who have followed him. I believe that most, if not all of them have been visited by God as well.”
A prophet is someone who lived way back in ancient history, in Old Testament times, right? I can’t imagine someone today claiming to be a prophet. If they did, we would think they were crazy. And yet, so many people are searching for divine guidance that they listen to all kinds of crazy people who claim to be prophets. Wait, the Mormons claim to have prophets, don’t they?
Joseph Smith was a prophet
If someone is going to claim to be a prophet – one who speaks for God – then they had better provide a way for me to know for myself that his claim is true. I’m not going to believe anyone who comes to me and says he has a message for me from God unless I have some evidence that God really did send him to me. What evidence or proof did Joseph Smith provide for his claims?
We teach that the Book of Mormon is the work of a prophet. It is something that we can read and judge for ourselves as a witness of the claim of Joseph Smith that he was called of God to restore the Church of Jesus Christ in our day. Joseph claimed to have translated the Book of Mormon from gold plates, and that it contains the words of God to ancient American prophets.
Now that is a fantastic claim. If this man was delusional, then he had some of the most elaborate delusions known to man. Visions of God, visits from angels, gold plates and revelations that proclaim what God is going to do in the last days – these are all things that are simply unheard of. Yet that is what we are proclaiming to the world – so all can learn and judge for themselves.
Summary and conclusion
Visions into the spirit world, receiving visits by divine celestial beings and producing new scripture are all things that a prophet would do. In fact, we read in the Old Testament that God speaks to prophets face to face. That’s an astonishing claim for any man to make in our day and age and yet, that is exactly what Joseph Smith claimed as he organized a new church in 1830.
You can read more about the visions of Joseph Smith, not in the Book of Mormon, but in the Doctrine and Covenants, a record of selected revelations that Joseph Smith received during a period of about twenty years. As a church we are studying the Doctrine and Covenants this year in our Sunday school classes. So much of what we believe can be found in these scriptures.
I love reading the Doctrine and Covenants. I often read it aloud in my personal studies just to get the effect of hearing the voice of the Lord. It is powerful and brings a spirit of revelation as I do. Several of Joseph’s visions are recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants, but certainly not all. He was a visionary man and made no secret of the fact that God spoke to him through these visions.