In November 2006 the Department of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University hosted the inaugural Church History Symposium. The success of that initial symposium demonstrated a widespread support for and interest in a BYU-sponsored, faith-based academic conference focusing on topics related to Church history. Department and university officials then gave approval to hold the conference on an annual basis. In 2016 Church History and Doctrine administrators entered into an arrangement with officials in the Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City to cosponsor the annual event. To accommodate both entities, the format expanded to a two-day conference, with the first day of the conference to be held at BYU and the second day in Salt Lake City, thereby increasing the number of symposium participants as well as attendees. In addition, the decision was made to hold the conference every two years rather than annually. This volume marks the twelfth in the symposium’s series. Collectively, the essays published in these volumes number nearly two hundred, covering a wide range of historical narratives related to the Latter-day Saint past.

The theme for this year’s conference corresponded with the two hundredth anniversary of Joseph Smith’s First Vision and presented a perfect opportunity to highlight various aspects associated with his remarkable theophany that inaugurated the “dispensation of the fulness of times” (Ephesians 1:10, see Doctrine and Covenants 27:13) and brought together all the keys and powers of past dispensations that had ever been revealed “from the days of Adam even to the present time” (Doctrine and Covenants 128:21). Little wonder that President Gordon B. Hinckley would state: “Our entire case as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rests on the validity of this glorious First Vision. It was the parting of the curtain to open this, the dispensation of the fulness of times. Nothing on which we base our doctrine, nothing we teach, nothing we live by is of greater importance than this initial declaration.” He then concluded, “I submit that if Joseph Smith talked with God the Father and His Beloved Son, then all else of which he spoke is true.”[1] To underscore the vision’s significance, President Joseph F. Smith declared that it was “the greatest event that has ever occurred in the world since the resurrection of the Son of God from the tomb and his ascension on high.”[2]

In President Russell M. Nelson’s closing remarks given during the October 2019 general conference, he noted the significance of the upcoming two hundredth anniversary of the First Vision and encouraged Church members to read and study Joseph Smith’s First Vision and to immerse themselves “in the glorious light of the Restoration” in preparation for the upcoming April 2020 general conference.[3] When President Nelson made these remarks, our committee’s plans for the 2020 Church History Symposium were already well underway. However, President Nelson’s advice inspired our committee to ensure that the symposium would be a means whereby all who participated in or attended it could experience both a sense of spiritual conviction and intellectual enlightenment about the First Vision.

The symposium was held beginning 12 March 2020 in the BYU Conference Center and continued the following day in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square and in the Church Office Building Auditorium. In making plans for the conference, we could not have anticipated that on the second day (13 March), immediately following the conclusion of President Dallin H. Oaks’s keynote address, the Church would announce the temporary suspension of Church meetings and temple operations because of the worldwide spread of the COVID-19 virus; likewise, BYU would also announce that its on-campus classes would move to online instruction for the rest of the semester. After months of planning and preparation, we felt extremely fortunate that the symposium was able to be held as scheduled.

This year’s symposium featured over forty presentations by faculty members from BYU and BYU–Idaho, instructors representing Seminaries and Institutes, and independent scholars from various backgrounds and academic institutions. The papers presented included a variety of subjects related to Joseph Smith broadly and to his First Vision specifically. Topics included Joseph Smith’s other visions of deity; Latter-day Saint and non–Latter-day Saint visionaries contemporary with Joseph Smith; the First Vision as literature; how the First Vision has been used in general conference, in missionary work, and in Church curriculum; artistic depictions of the First Vision; the First Vision in film; and the doctrinal contributions of the First Vision, among many other subjects. The essays in this volume include a selection from these and other presentations.

This book is composed of four major sections. The first category includes the addresses given by the symposium’s three keynote speakers: Richard Lyman Bushman, Sheri L. Dew, and President Dallin H. Oaks. Richard Lyman Bushman—author of the award-winning biography Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, among other works—gave the opening address. Considered by many to be the foremost authority on the life and ministry of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Bushman provides in his essay a timely perspective on Joseph Smith’s mission and his overall objective to testify of the divine mission of Jesus Christ. Next, Sheri L. Dew—well-known in Latter-day Saint circles as a former member of the general presidency of the Relief Society, a publisher, an author, and the biographer of three presidents of the Church (Presidents Ezra Taft Benson, Gordon B. Hinckley, and Russell M. Nelson)—offers insights into Joseph Smith’s personal “mortal loneliness.” Dew describes Joseph’s loneliness—his own spiritual separation from God—and how each of us can relate his experiences to our own journey through mortality. Lastly, President Dallin H. Oaks, First Counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, delivered the closing remarks at a plenary session that served as a capstone to the two-day symposium. As a lifelong devoted scholar of the Prophet Joseph Smith, President Oaks supplies in his essay a personal glimpse into his own early professional academic career—his researching, writing, and coauthoring of Carthage Conspiracy: The Trial of the Accused Assassins of Joseph Smith as well as his examination of Joseph Smith’s 1842 bankruptcy case. President Oaks also discusses his participation in the 2005 conference on Joseph Smith sponsored by the Library of Congress in cooperation with BYU and writing his 2013 paper on Joseph Smith’s legal cases in Illinois, which President Oaks had presented at a conference sponsored by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois.

Four essays appear under the heading of “Context,” three of which—those by Rachel Cope, Richard E. Bennett, and Mark Staker and Don Enders—give historical perspectives of the religious environment associated with the Second Great Awakening during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In the fourth essay in this section, Quentin Z. Barney examines a number of historical details associated with the last known account of the First Vision given by Joseph Smith, a May 1844 account that Alexander Neibaur recorded in his journal.

Under the heading “Place,” Matthew C. Godfrey considers how the natural environment of the wooded area near the Smith home allowed young Joseph, like other seekers, to have a spiritual setting and atmosphere to help him commune with heaven. Gary L. Boatright provides readers with a history of the Smith farm in Manchester, New York—specifically a history of how the Smith family and eventually the Church acquired the property, in addition to past and current efforts by the Church to preserve the Sacred Grove.

In the final category, “Meaning,” Steven Hepworth discusses and compares a number of satanic encounters experienced by individuals contemporary with Joseph Smith and then explains the process of how Joseph Smith came to more fully understand the origin, nature, and designs of Satan. Kent P. Jackson investigates the question young Joseph posed when he asked what church he should join and concludes that the First Vision demonstrates that none of the existing Christian churches had the correct doctrinal understanding of the fundamental truths regarding the true nature of God or the authority of the apostleship that existed in the early Christian church. Steven L. Olsen addresses the exclusive status of the 1838 account of the First Vision as part of the Latter-day Saint canon and analyzes how the literary style of that account demonstrates Joseph Smith’s own spiritual evolution during the years following the vision, an evolution that enabled him to express his experience more inspirationally and transcendentally using ordinary language. Lisa Olsen Tait explores how Susan Young Gates’s personal developmental understanding and internalization of the First Vision influenced the framework for Gates’s 1920 Improvement Era article “The Vision Beautiful,” which reflected her feelings that the theophany “expressed her own vision of the ultimate meaning of the restored gospel” as well as “women’s changing status in church and society.” Finally, Casey P. Griffiths analyzes seven portrayals of the First Vision made in film between 1930 and 2015. Griffiths notes the various audiences, purposes, depictions, and thematic differences of the renderings and shows that each has value.

We acknowledge the support of Daniel K Judd, dean of Religious Education at Brigham Young University, and Andrew H. Hedges and J. B. Haws, associate deans. We also express appreciation to Elder LeGrand R. Curtis, General Authority Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Church Historian and Recorder, and Executive Director of the Church History Department; Elder Kyle S. McKay, General Authority Seventy and assistant executive director of the Church History Department; and Matthew J. Grow, managing director of the Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a general editor of the Joseph Smith Papers. We are also appreciative of Connie Brace, secretary of the Department of Church History and Doctrine, for making the physical and financial arrangements for the symposium. Finally, we are indebted to the individuals and staff at the Religious Studies Center for the production of the book, particularly Scott C. Esplin, director of publications; Devan Jensen, executive editor; Brent Nordgren, operations and productions supervisor; Joany Pinegar, publications coordinator; and Shirley Ricks, senior editor, and Meghan Rollins Wilson, intern, for their invaluable editing skills.

Alexander L. Baugh

Steven C. Harper

Brent M. Rogers

Benjamin C. Pykles


[1] Gordon B. Hinckley, “What Are People Asking about Us?” Ensign, November 1988, 71.

[2] Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine: Selections from the Sermons and Writings of Joseph F. Smith (Salt Lake City: The Deseret News, 1919), 627.

[3] Russell M. Nelson, “Closing Remarks,” Ensign, November 2019, 122.