It was years afterwards that Joseph Smith made his first attempt to describe what we Mormons refer to as “The First Vision.” Certainly, making a pamphlet boiling down a theophany to mere words was beyond daunting; perhaps it felt like a mockery. There was a persistent request for an understandable account of an indescribable event, and eventually Joseph attempted it. In fact, he attempted it multiple times. After a century, illustrators created their own interpretations of what the divine beings looked like, according to Joseph Smith. Of course, any illustration outside the center of the sun or outside the realms of pure joy could never convey anything but a pale hint. The divine never fits into an alphabet, which is why writers tend to use metaphors. Nor does it fit into paint strokes. That is why artists might suggest more than they will portray.
What was the theophany really like for Joseph Smith?
This is my “supposal”: Joseph’s thoughts, fictionalized
The first part is easy. There was a tangible Bible, and I read it. I read James 1:5. I pondered the words. “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God.” Would God actually “give liberally” to “any of you”–meaning me, too?
I have always had a simple faith. If God had said it, it was true.
I did not leave at once. I read and re-read the scripture, and then read it again the next day. There was a day when I was about to kneel by my bed and ask God a question, but the moment my knees bent, a beam of light met my eyes. Was that when the music began? What do you imagine when I say “music”? Handel? Fiddlers and juice harps? Angelic harps?
It was music unlike anything mortal. The music was in the light as soft hums, and I could hear it beyond the light, in the very trees. Everything was alive, and I learned that even a rock can sing.
I walked outside, determined to choose my praying ground in a grove. The leaves themselves were making music—something only I could hear. How can I describe it? Not bells, no tinkling, but a harmony of breath, as though each leaf were a whisper making music with every other leaf. When I looked above me into the canopy of tree tops, they were illuminated in the pleated fan of light, and they were something more than leaves. Jewels? Beyond jewels. There are no words. There are no words.
The leaves at my feet shone as well. They seemed to want my knees to meet them.
I knelt and was instantly transported. My knees had not even found the dirt. The light was bringing all leaves, branches, trunks to life, and suddenly I was elsewhere. And then–the lights were gone. That is to say, there was no light. Even that is inadequate. There was ravenous darkness which devoured whatever it touched. I could not breathe. I could not see. I knew I was being strangled, swallowed by this relentless, all-consuming nothingness. There was anger in it, fear, fury, my own doubts magnified and thrown at me like darts. The darkness meant to murder me, to squeeze my heart into a stone and my breath into a frayed string. I was dying, and with my last breath, I hissed, “Hosanna.” Meaning “Save me!” Would I have been reduced to ashes had I not spoken?
At once, the darkness was dispersed in a magnificent but soundless explosion No, that’s not quite right. There was a noise, but not a loud one. It was musical. Unimagined chords in sweet and paradoxical harmony. Do you understand that I cannot describe it?
And then, light as brilliant as the darkness was dark lifted me up. I remained where I was, but higher, within a deeper reality of this earth. The leaves around me were white fire.
What did I see?
I saw everything. I saw angels. I saw gods. I saw two personages. Their robes would have blinded me had I seen them with my natural eyes, but remember that I had been transported to another realm. The pleats of their robes held prisms, but nothing pale. Each color was the true color, a color which made what we see on earth merely shadows. There was a feminine deity somewhere, for I was given to understood that her realm comprised every grove and garden, every ocean and stream. I either heard the words or simply understood them without their being spoken: “Joseph, this is my son.”
“Your sins are forgiven.”
Whatever else I sought, that one gift—forgiveness—was the gate into all else which I was to behold. My mind required release from secrets or guilt, from fear or sadness.
It did not occur to me to see if the lips of these personages moved, as I understood their thoughts perfectly. The radiance of their visages defied detail. It would be like watching lightning to find its mouth.
You do understand, don’t you, that I can never actually describe what I experienced. I tried several times, and remembered a few details each time.
I did not wish to return to this sorry world with all of its troubles, its feeble attempts at sense and music—not after I had ascended so high! But I knew that there was a mission for me to accomplish. Nor was I abandoned as I returned home. I felt joy. Joy came into me from every bud and pebble, and I could see the light of God in every human face. I loved everyone, for how could I not?
I wonder how I must have appeared to my parents when I ventured into our home. I was sitting by the fireplace when my mother asked me what was wrong. I told her that I was fine. Yet I knew that I was destined for both torment and glory. Surely that dark power which seized me would wait for me again, and surely God would be with me.