What does the Community of Christ believe? Vol. II

“It only takes a spark to get a fire going.”  I grew up hearing that as a campfire song, and took a certain meaning from it through my own interpretation as something along the lines of the little things you do can have a big impact.  That has become clear with visitors at the CofC historic sites. 

Sometimes this “spark” lights a fire of tension between visitors and guides.  Starting off tours in Nauvoo, we traditionally show a 12 minute video before heading off to visit the homes.  In this video is a line, one which I had heard many times but never gave a second thought about, which seems to infuriate many visitors and leave them permanently annoyed throughout the visit.

Talking about Joseph Smith’s first vision: “In a quite grove of trees near his upstate New York home, Joseph prayed for guidance and there had an experience with the divine.”

Harmless to me, but borderline blasphemy to others.   In my experience, no single question has more often accompanied the start of the tour than a visitor asking for clarification about that point and why the Community of Christ chose that language to describe it. 

I’m well aware of the multiple versions of what happened out there in the grove, which is why I believe it is worded the way it is in the video. ( http://en.fairmormon.org/First_Vision/Accounts  This is the best website I could find with the different accounts in a quick search, I’m sure there must be a better option out there.) That’s the point I try to explain, but it rarely (if ever) makes it across the way I intended.  It usually just gets crossed arms and a glare, with an occasional nod of understanding, even if in disagreement.

My wondering is: why does this even matter?  Why is this such a big deal to some, and a seeming non-issue to others?  Does the Community of Christ even care about what did or did not happen in the grove, if anything happened at all?

Taking the tour through the Independence Temple sometime back, I remember the entrance to the worshipper’s path was designed to replicate the grove in New York.  Clearly it had some significance to somebody at that point.  It was chosen as the starting point for entrance to the sanctuary.

Does the “First Vision” matter in the present-day CofC?  What, if anything, might it mean?  Why’d we put it in the Temple?  Did this vision even happen at all?  Does any of this debate even matter or is it all a waste of time?  What does this event (in whatever understanding you may have of it) mean to the CofC in late-June 2009, or what did it used to mean to the Church or to you?


21 comments on “What does the Community of Christ believe? Vol. II

  1. Glenn Burns says:

    Personally, I believe that the “First Vision” serves an example of one man’s personal faith journey. Wither or not he had an actual experience with the Divine matters less to me than the message that came from this story. As a Church we believe in continuing revelation from the Divine in our everyday lives. As I travel along my faith journey I know that many things which Joseph claims to have experienced and felt seem to not make much sense to many common day audiences. However, to me these experiences are an example of Christ’s continuing influence in our lives today. I think the duplication of this scene in the Temple was meant to remind us of this.

    In addition to questions about the language in our video, and perhaps more often, I am often asked how our church views Joseph Smith Jr. Many seem to draw the conclusion that we have cast him off as a false prophet. While I do not personally have this outlook, it is refreshing to know that as a Community of Christ we are able to decide how we share our own experiences and faith journey. Each one of us will have a different answer to these questions and that is great!

  2. Lyle II says:

    Joseph’s personal spiritual experience in the grove is part of his personal sacred story, but it is also part of our sacred story as a people. The “details” of what he encountered being his personal sacred story, that he would interpret and express in different ways at different times in his life, in part reflecting his changing theological understandings. That he had questions, sought answer and turned to the Holy and had a personal spiritual experience that was a start of a journey that would include many more experiences, the bringing forth of a collection of stories that tackled many of the theological issues of the day and that would be embraced as scripture, and organizing the Church of Christ… is part of our sacred story as a people. The particulars of the spiritual experiences are less so.
    I am sure if any of us had experienced the same spiritual experiences we would describe them differently than Joseph did in any of his descriptions of them. Some of us might use vision terminology, while others might speak of being impressed by the Spirit or…. We would attempt to express our encounter in a way that makes sense and with the finite language we have available and our own experiences and encounter. And like Joseph I am sure over time we would express them differently as our world view changes. I am sure if I were to tell of personal spiritual experiences I have had in the past, my descriptions today would be different than at the time I experienced them, and in 10 years perhaps even more so. For those who have had Patriarchal Evangelist Life Blessings, how has our understandings of the meanings changed of those words as we continue down the roads of life?
    Thus what Joseph specifically experienced, when it transpired, how old Joseph was… is not the import part for us (for him it was). For us, like all sacred stories, what is import is the truth, guidance that can come out of it. How can we encounter the Holy, how can we use it as a tool to grow in our relationships, to travel forward on the path of discipleship and encounter and share the Good News.
    In Seekers and Disciples expresses it as our story, by comparing his journey in this encounter to our own: “Searching for direction, wrestling with scripture, praying for guidance, receiving the assurance of God’s presence and love, discovering new directions for our lives, following Jesus day by day- this is our experience as Community of Christ.” Thus in many ways Joseph experience provides us with a tool, a pattern, a reflection to use in exploring our own stories and journeys.
    The Grove is at the start of the Worshiper’s Path, and while it impart reflects the story of a start of Joseph’s journey, it also reflects that of many others who have encountered the Holy in nature, who have sought understanding and insight, turned to the Holy and had encountered. It reflects as well our communal story, both that which has transpired, is transpiring, and will transpire. As a pamphlet on the Worshiper’s Path states “The carved-glass entrance to the Path symbolizes the worshiper’s search for an encounter with God.” It is perhaps even the story of how our most recent piece of scripture came to be, as I think of how Steve has described some of his process of reflecting and struggling with his encounter with the Holy that lead to those words being formed and shared.
    That station of the Path, can hold many meanings… not just about the search for encounter, but the reflection of the wonders of all of creation, including the insects, squirrels, plants… depicted within it.. as a reminder of the grater whole of creation which we are part of, that we journey with. It can be a reflection of past journey and encounter with the Holy, present encounter and searching, and future encounter. It is however a starting point, a place we may pause and stay for some time, but eventually are called forth by that encounter to move forward, to fourth encounter, reflect, grow, seek healing, express sorrow and praise, to be inspired, and to spiral out into the world empowered/endowed to share the Good News of the Peace of the Living Christ unto all the earth, all of creation, yes even to those insects and squirrels we were in the grove with and at times heading back and traveling the path again, and yet for the first time, sometimes physically sometimes in other forms in other places around the globe.
    If the Temple is truly “an instrument of ongoing revelation” then we must be willing to embrace that each station of the Path, can serve as a tool for that ongoing revelation in our individual and communal lives, as we journey that path together be it in Independence or Fiji or the DR Congo or… As we do we truly will be called into “reverence in the presence of the Divine Being,” and have “transformative encounters with the Eternal Creator and Reconciler,” I think that encounter some refer to as the “first vision” I think was such a transformative encounter for Joseph, and as part of our sacred story can aid us on our own, but if misused, like any sacred story, can hinder us as well.

  3. Doug Gregory says:

    Just as we have been admonished to not worship scripture, so we have wrestled with worshiping both Joseph Smith, Jr and the grove experience. Growing up in the church in the ’50’s and ’60’s, it almost seemed to me like Joseph Smith was the fourth member of the godhead, and our Utah cousins still treat him basically like that. The grove experience was the sign of legitimacy many held on to, much like Moses encountering the burning bush.

    The amazing thing to me is that, like all prophets, Joesph Smith, Jr was a flawed human in whose encounters we see the both the insight of God (some D&C elements are awe-inspiring) and the frailties of man (naming himself to a military office that had no peers so he could not be tried by a court of his peers). For so many years, we tried to paint him as perfect, and did both he and the church a major disservice. He was a man who eventually succumbed to both power and tribulation, but there is no doubt in my mind that he was given amazing insights into the nature of God (pre-Nauvoo) that I cherish.

  4. I seriously doubt that he even had the grove experience since I really believe Sidney Rigdon, Oliver Cowdery and perhaps even Hyrum Smith had every bit as much to do with the Book of Mormon as Joseph Smith did.

    But a myth is good. Our entire religious experience is built on myth and every other culture’s religious experience is also built on myth. Myth is powerful.

  5. Jay says:

    Speaking from an LDS background, I think the line you described offended some LDS members because of the strong foundational emphasis placed on the first vision by LDS leaders (i.e. If the first vision didn’t happen, the LDS Church is false and Joseph Smith was a fraud). Another contributing factor is that most LDS members are unaware of the many versions of the first vision. I can confidently say that it is never discussed in a church setting. Sadly, LDS members are extremely uninformed about their own history. Only the few that take time to study it out, usually later on in life, actually understand that the first vision accounts are vastly different as time passes and that Joseph did not publicize it until much later.

    So you should not be surprised at the reaction many LDS members give. They have been taught that the first vision was a pivotal event in world and religious history and to not give it the deference they have come to expect can come across as offensive to many of them.

  6. I’m a 5th generation Community of Christ member and I must say that I’ve come to believe that Joseph Smith was a “fraud.” That doesn’t take away what he contributed…for I’m grateful that our church exists, for all the good memories and experiences I’ve had throughout my life as well as the fellow church members who are like family to me.

    Maybe Joseph Smith had the right intention, to found a new religion that he believed was closer to what Christ and his followers had. He might have had psychic ability, as well. Does this make him a bad person? I believe his idea for a new religion was good, but somewhere between Independence and Nauvoo, he lost it and totally fell into the ego trap that led to his demise.

    If anyone is offended by a simple line in the church’s video presentation, they need to get a grip. I was “offended” by a lot of Mormon beliefs when I attended BYU, but I “got over it.” There’s nothing wrong with hearing or learning about another group’s perspective on an event you might have been taught to view a different way all your life.

    When I first read that, I thought you meant that evangelical Christians might be offended by that line. I can see why they would be…but, again, this is a film that presents our church’s view of that event.

  7. Dan Jeffers says:

    Do visitors object to “had an experience with the divine” because it says too much implying a special revelation offensive to some Protestants or because it says too little, leaving out the details and conlusions traditionally attached to the Grove experience?

    • Barb Walden says:

      For visitors I have encountered in Kirtland, they have expressed frustrations with the video because the grove experience is interpreted in broad and somewhat vague terms. Many of our visitors would prefer the line “had an experience with the divine” to be replaced with a more detailed description of Joseph seeing two distinct beings: God the father and Jesus Christ. I find that they are not offended by our interpretation of history, but rather they would prefer the traditional telling of the story that strengthens their own testimony and/or what they have always known. Most of people are unaware that Joseph shared a number of different accounts of his grove experience.

  8. Doug Gregory says:

    How easy it is to judge others! So much of what Joseph brought to the church is so congruent with other scripture, and so beautiful and mind-altering, that I find it difficult to just dismiss him as a charlatan, a pretender, a conniver, or a fraud. There are passages he brought that to me are remarkably inspired.

    I clearly acknowledge that he – like every other prophet – was not perfect. But, I refuse to throw the baby out with the bathwater. If I cannot believe that he was a prophet, then how can I believe in continuing revelation – a singular foundation for the church? Let’s be consistent, here.

    This is like saying I don’t believe Jesus is the Christ, but I believe in what he said. Well, he said he was the Christ, so this makes no sense.

    I believe Joseph Smith “fell”, if you will, during the Nauvoo period, just as other prophets (such as Jonah, quoted by Jesus) “fell”. That does not diminish their work, nor does it negate what they did. You go through being tarred and feathered, being taken from your family by force, being run out of town by a mob and see what it does to you.

    I admire the man, and always will. I will not call him a “fraud”.

    • You are obviously entitled to your opinion – but it’s a little insensitive to say that anyone who disagrees with your opinion “make no sense” or are “inconsistent.”

      It also reveals an apparent lack of depth in your analysis to rule out alternative theories and ways of thinking. In my opinion.

      • Doug Gregory says:

        “Makes no sense” was insensitive, and I apologize. “Inconsistent” was an opinion, and I was disagreeing with my brother’s rationale, not asking him to agree with mine.

        After 45 years as a baptized member of RLDS / CofC, I have reached a conclusion for myself, which I shared. I don’t know that sharing this personal conclusion reveals any more of a lack of analysis on my part than determining that Joseph Smith was a “fraud”, as my brother shared. I’m not sure we know each other well enough to reach for the “lack of depth” card, although your expertise in this area may well exceed my own.

        My regrets for my selection of language having diverted attention away from the subject at hand!

  9. I believe in the human ability to receive spiritual information through revelation…thus why I believe that JS might have had some kind of psychic ability.

    The reason why I used the word “fraud” is because I do not believe that he found golden/brass plates in the side of the hill. If he wrote the BOM or plagiarized it from other works, then yes…he is a “fraud” for claiming the BOM had all these mystical qualities surrounding it.

    Having said that…am I glad he created our church movement? Of course! But had I lived back then, I doubt that I would’ve been swayed to join. I see a similar thing today with L. Ron Hubbard’s “Dianetics” and the absurdity that his science fiction ideas became a religion.

    • Doug Gregory says:

      Thank you for your clarification.

      The statement that “he is a fraud” implies everything he did was fraudulent, and my guess is that you may just be referring just to the Book of Mormon, and not to his whole life. In that case, the Book of Mormon writing would be understood by you to be an act of fraud perhaps instead of him being a fraud.

      Just so I understand, in your opinion, were Isaiah (any of the three) or Mohammed or Buddha psychic or were they spiritually aware (prophetic)?

      Can’t say that I am persuaded of your view, brother, but this type of exchange is the process through which we come to understand and value each other’s perspectives.

  10. It was years after the church was started before Joseph Smith even mentioned his grove experience. I believe it was in response to the inquiry of Wentworth, who I believe was an editor of a newspaper. Then there were several renditions of the grove experience..all different.

  11. His earliest mention of the experience was in 1832.

  12. When I say JS is a “fraud”…its not just regarding the origins of the BOM. He also claimed to have been visited by God and Jesus, various Angels, and even John the Baptist. If he was making it all up to create some sort of legitimacy to his new religion, then it is a fraud. But I believe that all religions began as “frauds”. They all require some kind of literal belief in the founding miracle(s) of the religion.

    I don’t know enough about Muhammed, Siddhartha (the Buddha), or Isaiah to determine if they were indeed “psychic”, though I imagine that most spiritual leaders probably have that gift. And to be clear on the word “psychic”, I don’t mean those fortune tellers who give Tarot readings for $10. Some could be, most probably aren’t.

    From what I read about JS, with his use of the seer stone, I get the impression that he might have been clairvoyent (able to see spiritual beings). Most people I’ve brought this idea up with dismiss it outright because of the stigma attached to a word like “psychic.”

    Though I don’t believe the mystical aspect surrounding the BOM and the founding of the church, I am grateful that JS did found our church movement, only because I know the church from a personal standpoint of my own life. And it is a very good thing, the church we have today. When I read about Emma Smith or their son Joseph III, I can’t help but admire their influence in the direction our movement took after the tragedy of Nauvoo.

    I have a more complicated view of JS because he sounds like an early version of a Jim Jones or David Koresh. However, he is one individual I would love to meet someday in heaven to get a sense of how he envisioned the church and to answer that age old question…which branch of the Latter Day Saints best represents the church he envisioned?

  13. Richard says:

    To say “Joseph had an experience with the divine” is akin to my saying “I had a political encounter” when I met President John F. Kennedy as a youngster. It is frankly less than honest to characterize Joseph’s story in this way, a story he repeated in essentially the same form multiple times. The C of C’s refusal to acknowledge its own history is disingenuous at best.

  14. I don’t believe that’s so, Richard. Since he gave so many varied accounts over the years, I’m not sure that he even had such an experience. To share it the way Barb has done seems a more honest and safer account.

  15. James E Elliott says:

    I refer to the Interpreters Bible for biblical understanding. The Exegesis for James 1:5 states that one should invoke this verse if one is seeking wisdom to endure trials. It is not to find God’s true church. Joseph misunderstood the verse.

    James E Elliott

  16. Doug Gregory says:

    Reminds me of how Harry Black referred to the verse that says “His yoke is easy, and his burden is light.” He liked to say that “light” should be used in the context of “light and truth”, not weight, and that our real burden comes from having been exposed to truth and how we carry that and deal with it.

    I like to read others comments on scriptures for their added insight, but not necessarily for interpretation or definition. That seems to be a small part of what it might mean to be a prophetic people, eh? I too, am glad for JS’ interpretation, but even more for his proclivity towards acting on what he read.

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