clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

As church commemorates bicentennial, here’s a look at Joseph Smith’s First Vision portrayed on film

Actor Stewart Petersen walks into the woods in the 1976 film “The First Vision.”
David Jacobs

SALT LAKE CITY — Casey Griffiths’ introduction to Joseph Smith’s First Vision came when he was a young boy.

Not by reading the scriptural account, but by watching a VHS film on a television screen that was strapped to a cart in the Primary room at church.

Since that day, whenever Griffiths reads the Prophet’s accounts of the First Vision, the image in his head is usually that of actor Stewart Petersen, who played Joseph Smith in the church’s 1976 production “The First Vision.”

Reflecting on it now, Griffiths speaks of that movie like it is an old friend.

“It is probably safe to say that film is the medium through which most people experienced the story of the First Vision for the first time,” Griffiths said. “To me that film is one of the most important methods of spreading the truths taught in this vital story of the Restoration.”

Actor Stewart Petersen walks into the woods in the 1976 film ‘The First Vision.”
David Jacobs

Now as an assistant professor of church history at Brigham Young University, Griffiths has watched multiple depictions of the sacred event, interviewed filmmakers and authored a paper titled “Cinematic Interpretations of the First Vision,” which he will present at the 2020 Church History Symposium on March 12.

“Film is often the swiftest way to transport us to the world of early 19th century upstate New York and into the woods of the young seeker Joseph Smith,” Griffiths said.

The symposium comes as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints commemorate the 200th anniversary of God the Father and Jesus Christ appearing to 14-year-old Joseph, which Latter-day Saints believe marked the beginning of the Restoration. President Russell M. Nelson designated the year 2020 as a bicentennial year last October.

Over the years, several filmmakers have attempted to re-create this significant event on the big screen. In addition to finding the right actor to play Joseph, they have wrestled with many of the same questions, such as how do we make a film that is both engaging and historically accurate? Which account or accounts of the First Vision should be used to tell the story? What is the most appropriate way to portray deity on the big screen? How do you visually tell the story in a way that conveys its powerful message?

Here is a look back at some of the films depicting the First Vision and how they did it.

‘Hardest thing I ever did’

Older members of the church will remember “The First Vision: The Visitation of the Father and the Son to Joseph Smith,” directed by David K. Jacobs and released in 1976.

“The First Vision was the hardest thing I ever did,” Jacobs said years later.

It was shot on location in the Sacred Grove in the spring of 1975. Stewart Petersen, then known for his role in the 1974 film “Where the Red Fern Grows,” was cast as Joseph.

The film operated on a budget so small that none of the cast received compensation. The script, written by “Saturday’s Warrior” author Doug Stewart, was based largely on the canonized 1838 account but also drew details from other accounts.

Jacobs and the crew struggled with how to conceptualize the film. How should they show Joseph reading the scriptures and where? How should they handle the vision itself? Should deity be shown and how? What would they look like? How should they show the dark part of the vision?

The initial plan was not to show God and Jesus, but church leaders favored showing their appearance. The only specific instruction church leaders gave Jacobs was not to make the film longer than 20 minutes, Jacobs wrote.

“The only question was how to show them to make them as glorious as we possibly could,” Jacobs later wrote.

Bad weather delayed production, Jacobs wrote, and time was limited because Petersen was committed to work another film and had a plane to catch.

Shortly before Petersen was scheduled to go, the rain stopped in the early morning hours and the crew went to work, finding conditions almost like those described in the hymn, “Joseph Smith’s First Prayer.” They were able to film the last scenes with Petersen in time for him to catch his plane.

“When the sun came up we beheld the loveliest mists we’d ever seen. It was incredible,” Jacobs said. “The tall wet grass sparkled and the birds burst forth into song and we knew we had been blessed with beauty that we could have never produced ourselves.”

Petersen, then 15, said he was intimidated by the responsibility of playing the Prophet, but the experience strengthened his faith. When he had down time, Petersen found it peaceful to wander among the quiet trees.

“I wasn’t really anxious to do the film, but my family counseled me that maybe it would be something that would help the church,” said Petersen, a devout member who now lives a quiet life in Wyoming. “It affected me then and continues to affect me.”

The film debuted in September 1976 at Salt Lake City’s Promised Valley Playhouse. It became one of the most-watched films in church culture, Jacobs said.

Petersen went on to serve a mission in the Netherlands, where he and his companions often showed the First Vision film to investigators. They didn’t recognize Petersen in the movie, even when his companions told them. “Are you sure?” the investigators would say, “you look different.”

“I was a few years older and had put on some weight,” Petersen said with a laugh. “But that’s kind of how it’s always been for me with any film. I’m a little self-conscious about it.”

Animated Joseph Smith

In the late 1980s, Living Scriptures produced a series of animated scripture stories as VHS tapes were becoming popular. One featured the story of Joseph Smith.

“We’ve spent over 45 years now trying to teach and educate people to more fully understand, engage and enjoy our history, scriptures and doctrine,” Matt Brown, the CEO of Living Scriptures, wrote in an email.

Author Orson Scott Card wrote the script for the animated Joseph Smith story. He took some literary liberties because he wanted viewers to see the young prophet as a real boy that worked hard and had fun, he said.

Card also had children in mind as he portrayed the First Vision scene with a rabbit and squirrel nearby while Joseph prays. Card remained close to the original accounts but altered some of the wording to cater to a younger audience.

The 2005 bicentennial

More church history films came to life to coincide with the bicentennial of Joseph Smith’s birth in 2005.

It was time to create a new version of the First Vision to show in church visitor centers, according to Mark Lusvardi, who worked for the church’s Missionary Department at the time.

The church made “The Restoration” in 2004.

Actor Dustin Harding played the role of Joseph Smith in “The Restoration.”
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Lusvardi wrote in an email that this film’s First Vision scenes were shot near the Hill Cumorah in Palmyra, New York, and “much care was taken to present an authentic telling of Joseph’s account.”

Gary Cook, a longtime church employee, wrote and directed the film. He consulted with Latter-day Saint scholars on the project, and with actor Dustin Harding they hoped to make Joseph an interesting character by focusing more on his family relationships, Cook said.

The film was eventually distributed as a resource for missionary work.

Some of the same footage was used in “Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration,” released in 2005.

In “Prophet of the Restoration,” Nick Whitaker played 14-year-old Joseph and Nathan Mitchell was adult Joseph.

T.C. Christensen, who has been involved in filming the First Vision at least four times with various films, served as the cinematographer for both projects. He was against showing deity during the First Vision scene, he said.

“Joseph said it was ‘beyond description’ and you are asking me to describe it?” Christensen said. “Instead we wanted to provide a sense of the feeling.”

While the filmmakers were hesitant to show God and Jesus, church leaders felt strongly that it was doctrinally important to show them, so they did. This was done using digital technology. Cook proposed the idea of showing the wounds in the Savior’s hands and Christensen agreed.

“To me that’s one of the most touching visuals,” Christensen said.

The First Vision scenes were filmed on the backside of Hill Cumorah. At first they discussed using an 18,000-watt lamp before they realized they could use something more simple and natural, Christensen said.

“The biggest light is the sun,” Christensen said. “We smoked up the grove and then captured the natural effect. We got streaks of light that were beautiful.”

‘The Work and the Glory’

“The Work and the Glory,” a 2004 film based on a popular historic fiction series by Gerald N. Lund, is one of only a few First Vision depictions made outside the institutional direction of the church, according to Griffiths.

Instead of going to New York, crews built Palmyra’s main street in the backwoods of Tennessee, near Knoxville, because it was easier and less expensive , according to director Russell Holt.

The First Vision scene was portrayed as Lund had it in the book, with Joseph, played by nonmember Jonathan Scarfe, relating his profound experience to a friend years later. His narration includes flashbacks and does not show deity, Holt said.

“We had to do quite a bit of location scouting to find a grove of trees that looked like the Sacred Grove but we found a place that fit the bill,” Holt said. “We don’t show the Father and the Son actually appearing to Joseph. We get right up to the moment where that happens, then we cut from young Joseph in the grove looking up and light coming down around him. We go to Joseph quietly telling Nathan what he saw rather than show it. I think that worked pretty well. If you try to depict deity you always run into stiff problems and challenges. We decided to steer clear of that and just allow Joseph to describe his experience in his own words.”

Holt wrote about filming the First Vision scenes in his journal.

“Joseph Smith’s scenes where he tells Nathan of First Vision went well,” Holt wrote on April 29, 2004. “I was deeply touched by Jonathan’s performance. Have worried about these scenes for months, but again, felt very blessed that they went so well.”

‘Ask of God’

The latest film — “Ask of God: Joseph Smith’s First Vision” — was created in 2015 to give viewers a special “experience” at the Church History Museum, according to Alan Johnson, the museum’s director.

“The intent was to create an experience for people, not just another movie,” Johnson said.

Along with creating a film that blends all of Joseph’s First Vision accounts into one narrative, the museum designed a unique theater experience. Viewers sit on a log bench in a small theater with a 220-degree viewing angle that gives one the feeling of being in the grove with Joseph. Adam Anderegg served as the project’s writer and director.

The “Ask of God: Joseph Smith’s First Vision” short film screens at the Church History Museum every 10 to 15 minutes in the new panoramic First Vision Theater, which features a 240-degree wrap-around viewing screen.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Filmmakers captured aerial visuals of the Smith family farm and Sacred Grove using a state-of-the-art camera suspended by a rope 150 feet below a helicopter.

The film concludes with violin music and words on the screen attributed to Joseph Smith: “Truly this is a day long to be remembered. ... a day in which the God in heaven has begun to restore the ancient order of His kingdom to bring about the completion of the fullness of the Gospel ... to prepare the earth for the return of His glory.”

“It was breathtaking,” Johnson said of his first time seeing the film in the theater.

In 2017, the church made the film available online.

Who did it best?

Griffiths said he admires all the filmmakers for their efforts in undertaking such a daunting task. After researching the various First Vision depictions, the educator shared his evaluations.

For missionary purposes, he likes “The Restoration.”

When learning about the life of Joseph Smith, he prefers “Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration.”

Because “Ask of God” incorporates all the accounts of the First Vision, it stands up to scrutiny by critics, Griffiths said.

Griffiths’ personal favorite remains the 1976 version. He can’t help but smile at the memory of a blurry VHS picture on a bulky television in his Primary classroom at church.

“For me, the 1976 version, though quaint by the sophisticated cinematic standards of today, is the most valuable,” Griffiths said. “Though the picture, sound quality and images are outdated, the words of Joseph Smith, his vision and his story remain a timeless lesson to all seekers of truth today.”

Correction: An earlier version stated that Mark Lusvardi was serving as president of the Nauvoo Illinois Mission. Lusvardi was released as mission president in January.