Joseph Smith, Again for the First Time

January 12, 2008 | 29 comments
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Sometimes I have suffered from convert envy.

It isn’t that I am not grateful for and proud of my convert ancestors — the Taylors in 1838, the Birdsalls in the 1880s, the Halls in the 1890s, and my own father in 1964. Their earlier acceptance of the gospel gave me the opportunity to grow up with all the blessings of a Mormon family. I didn’t have to depend on a chance encounter with missionaries, or on the willingness of a friend, for my introduction to the gospel.

But if I hadn’t had that blessing, would I have found the Church on my own? I used to wonder how — it’s not in my nature to give my name and address to a stranger on the street, or to invite two door-knocking strangers into my home.

Mostly, I wondered what it would have been like to hear the Joseph Smith story for the first time. That’s where my convert envy came in — I loved the Joseph Smith story, but I couldn’t remember a time when it was new to me. Would I have recognized its beauty without the warmth of familiarity? Would I have scoffed? I often wished I knew.

My mission call to the Switzerland Geneva Mission brought me to the MTC on New Year’s Eve. Because I already had considerable experience with French, I began memorizing the discussions on New Year’s Day. For nearly two months, I had little to do but memorize and recite while pacing the halls, standing in the shower, lying on my bunk. (I should have had the gospel prep and door approach lessons, too, but my district hardly ever remembered to call me in when they switched from language study to pedagogy.) So I memorized and memorized, including long passages of scripture once the discussions were down cold.

I loved working on the Joseph Smith story in French. Learning new words for the same story gave me a hint of what it may have been like to hear the story for the first time, but it revived my convert envy, full strength.

Tandis que j’étais travaillé par les difficultés extrêmes causées par les disputes de ces partis de zélateurs religieux, je lus, un jour, l’épître de Jacques, chapitre 1, verset 5, qui dit: Si quelqu’un d’entre vous manque de sagesse, qu’il la demande à Dieu, qui donne à  tous simplement et sans reproche, et elle lui sera donnée.

I didn’t exactly lack wisdom — I knew the story — did the promise in James extend as far as merely wanting a feeling, wanting to satisfy my curiosity?

Je me décidai finalement à  “demander à  Dieu”, concluant que s’il donnait la sagesse à  ceux qui en manquaient, et la donnait libéralement et sans faire de reproche, je pouvais bien essayer.

The desire to know what it would be like to hear Joseph Smith for the first time grew stronger and stronger over the days I worked on those passages.

One morning I was again alone in the halls, reciting the verses aloud.

C’était la première fois de ma vie que je tentais une chose pareille … me voyant seul, je m’agenouillai et me mis à  exprimer à  Dieu les désirs de mon coeur … je vis, exactement au-dessus de ma tête, une colonne de lumière, plus brillante que le soleil …

And that’s about when it happened. As I recited, something in my mind shifted, and I heard the story for the first time, just as if I had been an investigator listening to a missionary. Oh, I knew it was me who was speaking — I heard my own voice, and felt my lips and throat working —

Je vis deux Personnages dont l’éclat et la gloire défient toute description, et qui se tenaient au-dessus de moi dans les airs. L’un d’eux me parla, m’appelant par mon nom, et dit, en me montrant l’autre: Celui-ci est mon Fils bien-aimé. Écoute-le!

— but as I listened, it was all new to me. I heard as though for the first time, and I believed.

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29 Responses to Joseph Smith, Again for the First Time

  1. Jordan F. on January 13, 2008 at 12:33 am

    I have often felt the same way- envying “new converts.” But then I remember that we can also have the same experiences, again and again. In a way, similar to what you describe here, my first time reading and understanding Joseph Smith’s experience in German was such an experience for me. Thanks for sharing this!

  2. E on January 13, 2008 at 1:45 am

    Wow Ardis, what a great story, movingly expressed. Thank you.

  3. Bored in Vernal on January 13, 2008 at 2:42 am

    Ah, those words brought back beautiful memories of my French-speaking mission. I still remember them after all these years! I’m a convert, but learning it in a different language gave me a new perspective, also.

  4. Ivan Wolfe on January 13, 2008 at 11:27 am

    At first, I thought the post said you suffer from “convent” envy. Then I clicked on the “more” and saw that it was convert.

    Great post – I have nothing to add.

  5. Ray on January 13, 2008 at 12:46 pm

    Wonderful perspective, Ardis.

    I remember in the MTC wanting to feel an overwhelming feeling – the classic burning in the bosom, since I have had a conviction of the Gospel and the Restoration since as early as I can remember. I came to realize that I truly had a real testimony, even though I rarely felt a burning in my bosom, but the nature of my conversion never registered completely until last week when I was out with the missionaries – visiting an inactive member of our branch.

    This woman works Sundays, so she is unable to attend church. As we talked, however, she told us about her upbringing – how she had asked her minister at the age of 7 why Heavenly “Father” wasn’t married (since a father needs a mother, right?) – and why scripture stopped with the Bible (since God appeared and spoke to Paul after Jesus’ death, right?) – and on and on and on. She said she simply understood at that age that these types of questions were important, and that she needed to find the answers.

    As I listened to her, it struck me that she was describing me. The only difference is that I had the answers growing up for which she was searching. We both understood them when we heard them; I just heard them at the age when she was recognizing and searching for them. My “conversion” – as a BIC member – was exactly like hers would have been if she had heard the answers in her youth.

    I have served in many callings in the Church, including numerous ones that dealt with missionary work and teaching about testimonies, but I had never grasped that children in the Church truly can be “converted” prior to baptism. I had come to understand that my own testimony was gained while in my youth and was real, but I had not equated it with an adult conversion. As a school teacher, I knew that we vastly underestimate the learning capacity of most of our children, but I had never related that to their capacity for true conversion.

  6. Kevin Barney on January 13, 2008 at 4:25 pm

    A beautiful and touching post, Ardis. I love your coinage “convert envy.” I too have often suffered from that myself.

    I’ve heard of areas in the Church where converts feel like second-class citizens, where lifers sort of lord it over them. To me that’s absolutely crazy and I have a hard time understanding it. I personally stand in awe of converts. Because I have no way of knowing (and I served a domestic mission, so had no analog to your French experience), but my best guess is I wouldn’t have accepted the Gospel had I not been raised with it. I can’t imagine letting missionaries in my door. When the Scientology guy knocked on my door while I was in law school, I politely declined; what is to make me think my reaction would have been any different had I not been born in the faith and a pair of young guys knocked on my door with a story about Joseph Smith?

    At most I *hope* that were I in that position I would have accepted the faith, but I think it more likely I would not have. Recognizing this in myself, converts take on an almost heroic status to my perception. I offer one of those Wayne and Garth “I’m not worthy” bows in their collective direction.

  7. Kirk Reid on January 13, 2008 at 7:15 pm

    Ardis, there’s member envy of a sort from us too. It’s sweet when the Church and its message finally dawns on you for the first time, as is that process of feeling the new space open up in your mind and heart, but then you also find yourself looking back at all the things you could have got right instead of wrong. You see Mormons who have grown up in the Church and have such a clear appreciation of the ‘added value’ you could have had to so many experiences.

    Thanks for the great post. The emotions you describe are the last thing that would have occurred to me and gives a lovely new perspective on my own conversion.

  8. Latter-Day Sustainablist on January 13, 2008 at 7:42 pm

    A wonderful post for me to find and read on the sabbath -thanks.

    From today’s lesson (at least in my ward), the new Joseph Smith manual has these questions (page 35):

    When you first learned of the First Vision, what effect did the account have on you? What effect has it had on you since then?

    A wonderful reminder to keep these events fresh. Thanks again.

  9. Ardis Parshall on January 13, 2008 at 8:04 pm

    I appreciate hearing from those who have enjoyed this post or were reminded of their own experiences, and hope to hear from more.

    Kevin, I share your admiration of those who found the gospel without having had it handed to them as children. I know it’s a mark of strength or faith for lifers to be honestly converted at some point where we stop taking our childhood lessons for granted, but that’s an entirely different challenge from listening in the first place and making the leap that so many converts do. And Kirk, in one sentence you justify Primary, YM/YW, Family Home Evening, and all the other resources we pour into teaching children and families rather than leaving it all for young people to discover “when they’re old enough to make their own decisions.” It’s one more reason why I’m grateful to my father, who decided when his children were small that he wanted them to have the benefits of religion, then investigated the church my mother belonged to, and was baptized the same evening as my older brother.

  10. Ray on January 13, 2008 at 10:41 pm

    Kirk, you nailed something that I have heard from a lot of adult converts about their own “member envy”. At the risk of ruining whatever street cred I might have by quoting Mormon Pop Hymns, Hillary Weeks has a song entitled “Unwritten” that says, in my own words:

    “As I review the pages of the book of my life, I am grateful for what I read (what I have experienced), but I am most grateful for what has remained unwritten – those things from which the grace of God has shielded me – those things I have not had to experience – those things from which I have been saved in this life.”

    I understand convert envy, but as someone who was raised in the Church and gained my own testimony early (and as someone who has come to understand my own natural tendencies and inclinations), I am so profoundly grateful that I never had to become who I’m sure I would have become without the Gospel – that I have not had to experience those things I’m I would have experienced without the Gospel. I understand both convert and BIC envy, but all I really care about on a very selfish, personal level is that my experiences worked for me. In that regard, I truly do stand all amazed.

  11. Kirk Reid on January 13, 2008 at 11:43 pm

    Ardis & Ray, I think the both of you have had a bit of both worlds, having it given to you as a gift but finding your own way to it as well. I wouldn’t want this statement to be misunderstood, but there are not only the sometimes smooth, life-coherent journey of the life-long member, and the life-altering journey of the convert, but also – and perhaps not so obvious -the other journey, to a profound and self-generated testimony of the life-long member who’s more naturally interrogating of things, which itself can I’m sure be a journey requiring courage and beset by trepidations of various kinds. They’re all worthy of admiration for different reasons.

    The first for its steadfastness and natural affinity with faith.

    The second for its restless, ardent seeker quality and willingness to open up the soul.

    And third for its genuine fearlessness.

  12. Kirk Reid on January 13, 2008 at 11:46 pm

    the third

  13. Ray on January 14, 2008 at 12:08 am

    Kirk, I think there are as many “journeys” as there are individuals. The path might be strait and narrow, but getting to it and moving from the beginning to the end is anything but identical for each of us. Like I said, I’m grateful that mine was the right one for me. I’m not about to judge anyone else’s simply by how it compares to mine. No matter how we get there, if we both reach the same destination, we both reach the same destination – no matter how much time we actually spend getting to the path, how much time we actually spend on it or what condition we are in when we reach it. In the end, no matter what, when we are able to see the big picture, I think all of us will be thankful for whatever it takes to get us there.

    I do think, however, that it is important to “experience it again and anew” occasionally as we walk the path – as Ardis describes.

  14. Kirk Reid on January 14, 2008 at 12:14 am

    Yep I agree totally Ray. (was just pointing to the uniqueness of the journeys with some generalised examples of the possibilities, and the admirable qualities they might require and exemplify)

  15. Wilfried on January 14, 2008 at 12:57 am

    Thank you, Ardis, for reminding me of the privilege I had of hearing Joseph Smith’ story for the first time, from tracting missionaries, when I was 17 (in 1964). I was a deeply gripping experience. I remember every second of it and I have carefully kept that old black & white brochure with “Joseph Smith’s Getuigenis”.

    What is scary, however, is the realization that I could have so easily missed them (or they me). I just happened to be home that one afternoon. And then indeed, in the following 40 years I never, never had Mormon missionaries ring the door bell – up to now it has simply never happened. What could you expect? Two to three pair of missionaries for an urban area of more than one million. And tracting during the day hours finds few people at home, certainly not of the working population. So this reminds me of the fact that the vast majority of people in mission fields never had a chance yet to hear the story. Our proselytizing methods are such in some countries that, in my opinion, more than 99,99 % of the population still has to hear the message for the first time. No threadjack intended on missionary methods here! I merely want to emphasize the incredible privilege I had of being home at the right time.

  16. Jonovitch on January 14, 2008 at 3:56 am

    Ray, you definitely lost street cred by quoting Hillary Weeks. Yikes! :)

    My thoughts during today’s lesson are a bit off this topic, but still related. Our elders’ quorum discussed it from the angle of what it would have been like to be searching for the right church in that tumultuous environment. We heard from two recent converts, who shared great stories, which led me to think about how I don’t have any such story to share.

    But that led me to think about how I, too, had to earn my own way after a while; that I had had doubts and questions over the years and couldn’t just rest on Primary songs and youth conferences to keep me going. And that led to the thought that today’s environment is even more tumultuous than it was in 1820; we just have a different kind of tumult. We have TV, Internet, home video games, secularism, moral relativism, extreme intellectualism, consumerism, etc. All that the Smiths had to go home to after a hard day in the fields was each other and the family bible, to be read by candlelight.

    While they had to figure out which of all the religions was correct, I have had to figure out (over and over again) if my one religion inherited from birth is correct (or rather if it’s worth it) in light of all the flashy distractions and under the weight of the constant stream of oppressive doubts flooding into my mind from all sorts of worldly outlets.

    I do not envy Joseph Smith his circumstance, but I don’t believe he envies mine either. To each his own battle — I’m just glad I have his (and some of yours) to learn from and inspire me and lift me up so I can, from time to time, rejoice in the truth I have been blessed with since day one. And I thank God for that, since I (like others here) am not so sure I would be in the Church if that hadn’t been the case.

    I heard the same Joseph Smith History again today that I’ve heard many times before, and I am glad that having heard it again, I believed it again. I thank God for Joseph Smith and also for my ability to believe that improbable story every time I hear it. It doesn’t grow old for me, rather it strengthens me against the modern tumult. It isn’t the same as hearing the story for the first time, but I’m certainly happy to know it and to believe it every time I do hear it.

    Jon

  17. Adam Greenwood on January 14, 2008 at 9:14 am

    Well said, AEP.

  18. gecko on January 14, 2008 at 10:27 am

    Great story Ardis. Really enjoyed it.

    Personally, I’m so excited for the next 2 years and covering Joseph Smith. I struggled in the beginning with my own testimony of the church – all the doubts, all the questions. It wasn’t until I had a good understanding of Joseph Smith the Prophet – and the amazing grasp he had of Gospel Doctrine, Plan of Salvation, Progression of Man – that my testimony became truly established.

  19. Russell Arben Fox on January 14, 2008 at 10:58 am

    Over two years ago, Times and Seasons ran a series of posts in which permabloggers and guests talked about their own conversions–their own hearings of the Joseph Smith story for the first time, or some experience like unto it. Among that group were lifetime members, long-time converts, relatively recent converts, and those who are still converting. All, I’d like to think, are worth revisiting.

    Wilfried Decoo’s conversion story.

    Julie Smith’s converstion story.

    Adam Greenwood’s conversion story.

    Gordon Smith’s converstion story.

    Gina’s conversion story.

    Jim Faulconer’s conversion story.

    And my own usual rambling.

  20. BHodges on January 14, 2008 at 1:16 pm

    Ardis, thanks for the words.

  21. Bethie on January 14, 2008 at 2:04 pm

    Thanks for this beautiful and inspiring post. As an investigator, one of my prayers is that this this amazing revelation of the restoration will always be “new” to me.
    And I will continue to live in Praise and Gratitude daily.

  22. m&m on January 14, 2008 at 6:01 pm

    I loved this post, Ardis. I had convert envy, but mine came more in the form of wanting to read the Book of Mormon for the first time. I had a similar sort of ‘first time’ experience when struggling through it in my mission language for the first time. It was amazing.

    I also gained my testimony of Joseph Smith while on my mission, as we taught time and time again and as I saw people’s countenances change when they heard that fourth principle.

  23. Lupita on January 14, 2008 at 6:24 pm

    This was terrific, Ardis. Although memories of serious fatigue are intertwined with mission reminisces, I never tired of sharing the account of the First Vision on my mission. I often struggled to control my emotions while I was reciting, “Yo vi una columna de luz, mas brillante que el sol…”

  24. Jacob on January 14, 2008 at 6:24 pm

    Joseph Smith’s story is so unique, I don’t blame anyone for not believing it. As Mormons we are asked to believe a lot of things that the world cannot handle, and the First Vision, is indeed so bizarre and strangely wonderful all at the same time, that many Christians merely dismiss it as the imagination of a poor farm boy. I will not dismiss it, as I know it to be true. For me, it teaches us that God the Father loves his children more than we can begin to comprehend, and that he desires our salvation more than anything else.

    Wonderful Post, Ardis!

  25. DavidH on January 14, 2008 at 11:47 pm

    I was a missionary in a less advanced portion of Mexico in the 1970s (a companion from central Mexico referred to it as the “backwoods”). In my experience, people readily accepted the story of the First Vision, largely, I think, because they themselves had had similar spiritual experiences or visions or had family members or close friends who had. To many of the people I visited, the First Vision did not seem like a big deal or something that distinguished our Church from another. A significant number said that accepted that Joseph had the vision, but they did not accept that that meant that they should join our Church.

    I have come to believe that God reveals Himself to many people inside and outside our faith in many ways. I may be wrong, but I do not automatically or routinely question the visions and inspiration that others say they have received. I accept that many have had spiritual experiences or divine guidance leading them to a lifelong and firm commitment to their own paths of faith which differ from my own.

    I suspect that were I raised in another faith tradition, I would probably reach a similar conclusion to that of some of my friends in Mexico who did not join. That is, I would probably accept that Joseph received a vision of God leading him eventually to found (or restore) a church different from my own. But I doubt that knowing of or accepting his vision would, of itself, alter the religious path I was on (any more than accepting that Muhammed may well have received the Quran through revelation or inspiration would lead me to become a Muslim).

    To me, at this time of my life, the significance of the First Vision is that God heard and answered Joseph’s prayer, that He lifted Joseph’s guilt and shame by forgiving his sins, and that He gave Joseph direction. And, just as Joseph received those gifts by seeking, so can I and so can all of us. And it is through such seeking that I am led to remain in and remain committed to the Church (and teachings) that Joseph helped restore.

    Needless to say, the First Vision was also, for us, the first of Joseph’s many visions and spiritual experiences in the Restoration, and therefore has significance beyond that of a personal answer to a personal prayer. But, ultimately, for me in my life, it remains as the lodestar for seeking truth and guidance by asking God.

  26. tracy m on January 15, 2008 at 1:29 am

    Nice, Ardis. Thanks for sharing.

  27. Aaron on January 15, 2008 at 7:17 pm

    Hi,

    I really enjoyed reading your conversion story of Joseph Smith. I grew up in the church and have strong ancestry in the church back to Edward Partridge. However, my mother left the church and all of us kids did for awhile as well.

    Recently, I shared my conversion story on my blog and received some comments on how I was making it up. I was very grateful to have a knowledge that it doesn\’t matter what others think. I know I\’ve felt the truth and no one can change that.

    You can view my conversion story on my blog at: ama49.wordpress.com

  28. Dr. B. on January 16, 2008 at 4:29 am

    I love it when people have an aha moment when the paradigm shifts and they feel the Spirit go down into their hearts with fire telling them that something is spiritually true. That was one of your better posts. It was meaningful to me.

  29. LDS Pad on January 16, 2008 at 10:56 pm

    I always felt that I had it easy with growing up Catholic and then later in life my close friends and LDS Missionaries introducing me down a path that lead to my recent conversion.

    I admire people who are born into the Church and manage to gain their own testimonies. It seems it would be much harder to grow up with the Gospel and find the truth out for yourself.

    2nd generation, 3rd generation, 4th generation, etc. members, I would say, are much more stronger than converts. :)