George Q. Cannon was a young boy in Nauvoo who heard Joseph speak on many occasions. He would later became one the Apostles and eventually a counselor in the First Presidency of the Church.
Joseph was earnest beyond his years; but he was not of a nature to become a prey to morbid feelings. He was neither terrified by the awful threats of the revivalists into a ready acceptance of their dogmas, nor driven by their divisions and strife into unbelief in revealed religion. The all-absorbing question with him was: Which of these churches is the church of Christ? Under the influence of his great desire to know the truth and the correct path which led to salvation, he made a thoughtful analysis of the proffered creeds. Can it be wondered at that he was bewildered in the labyrinth of paths, each of which claimed to be the heavenly way? When at divers times he thought of uniting himself with some one of the churches, his further investigation each time revealed some false mysteries. Dissatisfied with their claims and pretensions, and conscious of his own want of knowledge and how easily he might err in a matter of such vital and eternal importance, he was led to seek for guidance from a righteous source. He had recourse to the word of God.
Searching the scriptures for comfort and light, one happy and most fortunate moment he read these sacred words:
“If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” (James 1:5.)
Like a flash of sunlight through lowering clouds, the import of a mighty truth burst upon Joseph’s mind. He had been vainly asking help from men who had answered him out of their own darkness. He determined now to seek assistance from God. A modest fear might suggest: Who was he that he should dare to approach the great Creator’s throne? But there was the plain promise. He could not doubt it, without doubting his Maker. He felt that he lacked wisdom; and to such as he, asking of God, there was the divine pledge to hear and give without upbraiding.
It was one morning in early springtime of the year 1820, that Joseph felt the earnest prompting and adopted the holy resolve. He walked into the depths of a wood, which stood near his home, and sought a little glade. There, in trembling humility, but with a faith which thrilled his soul-alone, unseen of man, he fell upon his knees and lifted his voice in prayer to God. While he was calling upon the Almighty, a subtle and malignant power seized him and stilled his utterance. Deep darkness enveloped him; he felt that he was in the grasp of Satan, and that the destroyer was exerting all the power of hell to drag him to sudden destruction. In his agony he called anew upon the Lord for deliverance; and at the moment where he seemed to be sinking under the power of the evil one, the deep gloom was rolled away and he saw a brilliant light. A pillar of celestial fire, far more glorious than the brightness of the noonday sun, appeared directly above him. The defeated power fled with the darkness; and Joseph’s spirit was free to worship and marvel at his deliverance. Gradually the light descended until it rested upon him; and he saw, standing above him in the air, enveloped in the pure radiance of the fiery pillar, two Personages of incomparable beauty, alike in form and feature, and clad alike in snowy raiment. Sublime, dazzling, they filled his soul with awe. At length, one, calling Joseph by name, stretched His shining arm towards the other, and said:
“This is my beloved Son: Hear Him!”
As soon as Joseph could regain possession of himself, to which he was encouraged by the benign and comforting look of the Son, and by the heavenly bliss which pervaded his own soul, he found words to ask, which of all the multitude of churches upon the face of the globe had the gospel of Christ; for up to this time it had never entered his mind to doubt that the true church of the Lamb, pure and undefiled, had an existence somewhere among men. But the answer came that no one of the creeds of earth was pure, and that Joseph must unite himself with none of them. Said the glorious Being:
“They draw near me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; they teach for doctrine the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.” (Joseph Smith’s Own Story.)
Even in the transport of his vision, Joseph felt amazed at the instruction. But the Heavenly Personages continued to commune with him, and repeated their command that he should not ally himself with any of the man-made sects. Then they and their enclosing pillar of light passed from his gaze, and he was left to look into the immensity of space.
The boy’s faith in the promises of God had now deepened into knowledge. He had been assailed by the power of evil, until it seemed he must succumb-that the limit of human endurance was passed. And in that instant of deepest despair, he had been suddenly transported into the blaze of celestial light. He had seen with his own eyes the Father and the Son, with his own ears he had heard their eternal voices. Over this untaught youth at least, the heavens were no longer as brass. He had emerged from the maze of doubt and uncertainty in which he had so long groped, and had received positive assurances on the matter nearest his heart from Him, whom to know was anciently declared to be life eternal.
Emboldened, satisfied, and happy beyond expression, Joseph’s first thought was of his loved ones. He must impart the glorious truth to them. His parents and his brethren listened, and were lost in awe at his straightforward recital. He next sought his old friends the ministers, those who had affected such an interest in his welfare and who would have so willingly acted as his guides toward heaven. His first experience with these gentlemen was somewhat discouraging. A Methodist preacher who had formerly cultivated the utmost friendship, and who probably had acquired considerable influence with him, was soon informed by Joseph of the heavenly manifestation. The pious man treated the communication with contempt, and curtly replied that there were no such things as visions or revelations in these days, they having ceased with the apostles, and that the whole thing was of the devil. Other ministers, and in fact the religious portion of the entire neighborhood, as the event became more widely known, united in the determination to overwhelm with ridicule and abuse that which they found themselves unable to silence by argument.
Joseph had been a great favorite among his neighbors, his gentle ways had made him beloved by all; he now was hated and reviled. He had been especially sought after by the clergy because of his diligence, earnestness and humility in striving to secure the grace of God; he now was stigmatized as a dissolute dreamer, a worthless knave and an arrant hypocrite. A boy of fourteen is seldom the object of universal conversation and comment in his locality; yet this youth’s enemies did not rest short of lifting him to an eminence where he could the better be seen and scorned of all men.
George Q. Cannon, The Life of Joseph Smith, the Prophet, Deseret Book 1888, p.30-33.