Bicentennial of the First Vision
We do not know the exact day of the First Vision of Joseph Smith, wherein he witnessed God, the Eternal Father, and his Son Jesus Christ, but we do know it was the Spring of 1820. The organization of the church was on April 6th, 1830; because I have noted in my life, and Elder Nelson once said, “There is great order in the universe,” I think there is a good chance the First Vision occurred on April 6th, 1820, 200 years ago a week from tomorrow.
Next weekend is the General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We will commemorate the bicentennial of that beginning of the restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
My “First Vision”
My testimony of the Gospel did not begin with a vision in the same sense Joseph’s did. But it was a vision of a different kind. It was a vision of the truth of the record Joseph went on to translate by the gift and power of God, the Book of Mormon.
That vision did not happen, as his did, one morning, in the space of likely a short period of time. In a sense, it was more like the gentle preparatory unfolding that happened over the centuries before his First Vision, in the invention of the printing press, the translation of scriptures in common language accessible by common people, the longing for reformation of religion of so many enlightened souls, the establishment of a government where religion could be practiced freely.
The sure foundation of my testimony unfolded in the course of about nine months, from September 1978 to May 1979, in the seminary building across the parking lot from South Ogden Junior High School, attached to the local church building.
Seminary in our church for most of the places outside of the intermountain west is an early morning class taught nearly every school day starting sometimes at 6 AM to educate youth on church doctrines.
The teachers for these classes are usually volunteers. One year while living in California I was asked to teach. It was a very challenging assignment. It is challenging physically, mentally, spiritually. Preparing to teach youth religious topics on a daily basis very early in the morning demands a great deal of effort.
My Seminary Teacher
The seminary class I attended was a release time class, wherein I was excused from school for one period. And it wasn’t taught by a volunteer, but by a full-time church employed seminary teacher. But I don’t think teaching at South Ogden Junior High was a plumb position. Brother John was the only teacher. I think it must have been a bit challenging to not have any other teachers to speak with throughout the day, only engaged with the students.
Just like all teaching, it was likely demanding.
Yet the impact of doing so can be enormous, at least it was in my life. The following is a letter I have shared with a number of seminary teachers over the last few years, written to Brother John on October 4, 2015, describing the influence he had upon me, and what I came to know through the course of that year.
Dear Brother John
A year ago I had the impression I needed to write a letter of thank you to you…. After spending a number of hours I wasn’t sure how I was going to make contact.
Then at my daughter’s seminary graduation here near Dallas, Texas, the regional seminary coordinator spoke, and said something about being continuing to be grateful to seminary teachers. It pricked my memory….
[In working with two local seminary teachers] …I’m finally, a year later, able to complete that task. In sharing the below with both those brethren, I noted that having taught early morning seminary myself, I know what a challenge it can be, and that teachers are in need of every encouragement possible. Perhaps there is some good purpose they will be able to make of my gratitude to you as well.
I was in your class at South Ogden Junior High starting in September 1978. Our course of study was The Book of Mormon. I remember (and I still have notes in a binder when I recorded the lesson in college about it if you can believe it,) the first class you taught on the first day of seminary, in September, 1978. You unfolded how the first chapter of the Book of 1st Nephi has many similarities to the Joseph Smith’s experience, in seeing a vision, attempting to preach to people, being rejected, reading a book, seeing God the Father, etc. I found all those parallels very interesting.
I remember you had an interesting system of marking his scriptures, using a single arrow line vertically through relevant passages, allowing you to mark the same verse with multiple arrows if the passage warranted. You also inserted pieces of paper into his scriptures, for significant thoughts or ideas. You wrote in the margins, and created your own maps. You’ll remember you shared all these ideas with me through the course of the year, and I, in wanting to be like you and know what you knew, practiced all of them myself.
Another early lesson was about the need to pray before studying the scriptures. I remember in those first couple of weeks having your teaching come to me one night after I had already started reading. Your encouragement in the lesson helped me stop, get down on my knees and pray, before continuing. I remember as I re-engaged in the scriptures, ideas and meaning leapt from the pages at me. The change after prayer was dramatic.
You asked me to be a class president for the first part of the year, and had all the class presidents come to an early morning meeting one day. I had shared this scripture study experience with you earlier in the week. I remember you asking me to share that with the other class presidents. Not only did you teach me, you helped to strengthen my testimony in what I experienced by having me share those feelings with others.
Well, I could continue for a while like this, with other memories, like having each student create an object lesson (I asked if I could bring my Dad’s 22 caliber rifle in for mine, and you approved), and making a book for each of us with our lessons; going to the inter-school scripture chase competition and getting creamed by the other classes who seemed to have only studied Jacob chapter 5 where all the questions seemed to have come from (and laughing about it on the way home); your (almost) dramatic teaching about the Zoramite prayers by suggesting a special prayer was needed after the opening prayer and getting on the desk to offer it with arm raised to the ceiling (you said he did it for the first class of the day, but thought better of it in our class, so just told us about it); your drawing out parallels in the Book of Helaman to the approaching signs before the coming of the Savior; and even your off-handed remark about not being sure how to teach those middle chapters of the Book of Ether near the end of the school year.
It is approaching 30 years since those lessons now. Can you believe the clarity of those memories? I do not think I could remember half that many items for most of the other classes I had that year in school. The impact of a seminary teacher can be profound, and very long lasting. Since I have copied this letter into my journal, and I have the same hope that Nephi did that I will be able to look upon my journal in the next life and beyond, it is hard to guess when these memories might stop influencing me, and others I know….
All of the above memories have certainly influenced me, particularly in my time with my children and with the youth. Yet there is one aspect of your teaching which had an even deeper impact upon me. A couple of years ago the missionaries were at our house for dinner, and at their prompting, I bore my testimony to my children. I told them that I had a seminary teacher when I was 14 years old, who made the pages of the Book of Mormon come alive to me. He helped me learn how to make them come alive for myself. Within those pages, I discovered that Jesus Christ is the Son of God; that He is interested in my personal salvation and capable of helping me overcome any sins or weaknesses that might affect me; he was so interested in my salvation he appeared, with his Father, to a boy name Joseph Smith, and assisted him in translating that record. The ability to do so qualifies Joseph Smith as a Prophet of God. I came to know for myself that the Book of Mormon is true.
That knowledge has been a pearl of great price and a well of living water to me, throughout my life. I am so grateful for your efforts that year, which I believe must have been somewhat a lonely responsibility, teaching freshman all day, by yourself, at South Ogden Jr. High School.
Thank you for being such a blessing in my life.
Kip M. Twitchell
This talk “The Impact Teacher” by Vaughn J. Featherstone gives more definition to how one might become an impactful teacher.
Footnote: My Object Lesson
I’ve been asked what my object lesson was with the rifle. Here is the text from the mimeographed book I have of the lessons presented by the students:
Topic: Fear Not
Scripture: D&C 39:30-31 “…if ye are prepared ye shall not fear. And that ye might escape the power of the enemy, and be gathered unto me a righteous people, without spot and blameless.”
Materials: An unloaded rifle
Explanation: Point to the sights and tell what they are used for. Show the barrel and how strait it is. Show where and how it is loaded. Show rifle in a cocked position and explain you have to be ready to fire. Show how to hold it. Tell how if you were lost in the forest you would not be afraid of anything if you had a gun.
Application: Tell how sights are like goals – they help us to see where we are going. The barrel is like the gospel – it heads us in the right direction. Loading the gun is like reading the scriptures – you have to be loaded and know what you are talking about. Being ready to fire is like looking for missionary opportunities and being ready for them. Behind you is the Lord and he will point you in the right direction. If you have the gospel you won’t be afraid because the Lord will protect you.