On Thursday, the associate managing historian of the Joseph Smith Papers, Spencer McBride, spoke to students about what he learned from hosting the Joseph Smith Papers podcast.
The Joseph Smith Papers is a project Church historians have worked on since the 1960s. They publish all things from Joseph Smith, whether it is journal entries, letters or receipts, to make it freely accessible for anyone who wants to study the life of him.
“I read dead people’s mail, I read their diaries too,” McBride said.
In 2018, to prepare for the historic bicentennial general conference, McBride and his team came up with the idea to host a podcast about the First Vision. After researching, they decided to tell the story of it in six episodes, through the eyes of historians, talking about the Sacred Grove.
A year after publishing these podcasts, they hit 1.2 million plays. Because of the success, they decided to continue on this track. The Church History Department came together and decided to create four more series, one about the Nauvoo Temple, one on the restoration of the priesthood, another on revelation in Kirtland and one about the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith.
Throughout all the research and learning, McBride realized the best way to learn from the past is to apply it to help people’s faith journeys. He shared five insights that have stuck with him the most throughout the podcasts.
1. Why a church?
McBride shared that in the past, the important question on the minds of learners was Smith’s question, “Which church is true?” Now, the question many people ask instead is, ‘Why a church?’ He explained that it is most important to answer the second question before learning which church is true.
2. The fullness of the priesthood
Reading from Doctrine and Covenants 124:38, McBride explained what Smith learned about the fullness of the priesthood. Though the priesthood was technically restored in 1829, Smith learned later that the priesthood is more than ecclesiastical administration — it is the power of godliness. He explained that to receive the fullness of the priesthood doesn’t mean someone must hold the priesthood, but rather, they participate in ordinances that involve the priesthood.
3. Smith’s understanding of the First Vision evolved
In 1832, Smith sat down for the first time to write down his own history. This is when he wrote the first version of the First Vision. At this time, this was a personal conversion narrative, writing about his relationship with Christ.
In 1835, Smith wrote another account explaining the history of the Book of Mormon. He began this story in the spring of 1820 as well, but, this time, he was retelling the story of the First Vision, impacting the Book of Mormon.
In 1838, Smith wrote the version of the First Vision that is now found in the Pearl of Great Price — this version was written to explain the Restoration of the Church. McBride explained that Smith didn’t realize the application of spiritual experiences in his life until he looked back.
4. Revelation as a process and also a learned skill
While reading the journals of Smith, McBride found himself craving to find the words that were crossed out. McBride said that the crossed-out words give insights into Smith’s head. Because of this, he learned from Smith that revelation is more than just a one-time experience.
“Revelation is more frequently a prolonged process more often than a miraculous moment,” McBride said.
5. The nature of God
McBride learned from another historian, Steve Harper, that we learn much more about the nature of God, because of the First Vision, we know God is nice, He is loving and He is responsive.
McBride explained that while God may not answer people the same way as He answered the 14-year-old Joseph Smith, He will answer.
As he concluded, McBride invited the audience to think of Church history with fresh eyes. He encouraged attendees to embrace Church history now while they’re young and to find lessons in history.