The vision which is recorded in the Book of Doctrine and Covenants was given at the house of “Father Johnson,” in Hiram, Ohio, and during the time that Joseph and Sidney were in the spirit and saw the heavens open, there were other men in the room, perhaps twelve, among whom I was one during a part of the time—probably two-thirds of the time,—I saw the glory and felt the power, but did not see the vision.
The events and conversation, while they were seeing what is written (and many things were seen and related that are not written,) I will relate as minutely as is necessary.
Joseph would, at intervals, say: “What do I see?” as one might say while looking out the window and beholding what all in the room could not see. Then he would relate what he had seen or what he was looking at. Then Sidney replied, “I see the same.” Presently Sidney would say “what do I see?” and would repeat what he had seen or was seeing, and Joseph would reply, “I see the same.”
This manner of conversation was reported at short intervals to the end of the vision, and during the whole time not a word was spoken by any other person. Not a sound nor motion made by anyone but Joseph and Sidney, and it seemed to me that they never moved a joint or limb during the time I was there, which I think was over an hour, and to the end of the vision.
Joseph sat firmly and calmly all the time in the midst of a magnificent glory, but Sidney sat limp and pale, apparently as limber as a rag, observing which, Joseph remarked, smilingly, “Sidney is not used to it as I am.” (Juvenile Instructor,May 1892, p. 303–304)
On a ... visit to Hiram, I arrived at Father Johnson's just as Joseph and Sidney were coming out of the vision alluded to in the Book of Doctrine and Covenants [D&C 76], in which mention is made of the three glories. Joseph wore black clothes, but at this time seemed to be dressed in an element of glorious white, and his face shone as if it were transparent, but I did not see the same glory attending Sidney. Joseph appeared as strong as a lion, but Sidney seemed as weak as water, and Joseph, noticing his condition smiled and said, "Brother Sidney is not as used to it as I am." (Philo Dibble, 1806-1895. Autobiography (1806-c. 1843; see online version)
The view of the afterlife laid out in “the Vision” contrasted starkly with the beliefs of most Christians at the time. A majority believed in a strict heaven-and-hell theology of the world to come: those obedient to the Gospel of Jesus Christ would be saved, but the wicked would be consigned to eternal punishment. However, there were a growing number who felt that this view was inconsistent with other Biblical teachings about God’s mercy, justice, and power to save.
For example, a young Congregationalist named Caleb Rich became troubled when his minister taught that Christ would have a mere few “trophies of his Mission to the world, while his antagonist would have countless millions.” Rich feared that his own spiritual “situation appeared more precarious than a ticket in a lottery.” He eventually rejected his minister’s doctrine and embraced what is known as Universalism. Simply put, Universalists believed that God would not eternally punish sinners but that all would eventually be saved in God’s kingdom. Joseph Smith’s father and his grandfather Asael Smith held Universalist views.
Most Christians felt that Universalism went too far, that its teaching of universal salvation removed all incentive to keep God’s commandments and would lead to an immoral, dissolute life. Many early converts to the Church agreed and may have felt confirmed in their view by certain Book of Mormon passages. However, “the Vision,” appeared to some of these converts to advocate Universalist teachings. Consequently, as people like Lincoln Haskins and Joel and Seth Johnson began to carry word of “the Vision” to the scattered branches of the Church, it created a stir.
Some outside observers scoffed at the newly revealed doctrine. One Christian newspaper responded to “the Vision” by sarcastically claiming that Joseph Smith sought to “disgrace Universalism by professing… the salvation of all men.” But more disconcerting to the prophet were the reactions of some Church members.
“It was a great trial to many,” Brigham Young remembered. “Some apostatized because God … had a place of salvation, in due time, for all.” Young himself had difficulty accepting the idea: “My traditions were such, that when the Vision came first to me, it was so directly contrary and opposed to my former education, I said, wait a little; I did not reject it, but I could not understand it.” His brother Joseph Young also confessed, “I could not believe it at first. Why the Lord was going to save everybody.”
Perhaps in a knee-jerk reaction to what seemed to be hints of Universalism, some early members overlooked the subtle beauty of “the Vision.” Avoiding the extremes of Universalism and the orthodox view of heaven and hell, it suggested that the sufferings of the disobedient would indeed ultimately end, but that the Lord also held out the promise of unimaginable rewards for those who are “valiant in the testimony of Jesus” (see D&C 76:79).
Many of those who “stumbled” simply needed some time to ponder, or the patient hand of a missionary or spiritual leader to explain. Joseph Young remembered, “After I had prayed over it and Joseph had explained it I could see it was nothing but good sense accompanying the power of God.” Brigham Young had to “think and pray, to read and think, until I knew and fully understood it for myself.”
In May or June 1832, missionary John Murdock encountered resistance to the ideas in “the Vision” in Orange, Ohio (near Cleveland): “[T]he brethren had just received the Revilation called the vision & were stumbling at it.” Murdock acted the part of spiritual mentor: “I called them togather & confirmed them in the truth.”
Later, Murdock and fellow missionary Orson Pratt encountered a Brother Landen in Geneseo, New York, who “said the vision was of the Devil.” Landen had influenced his branch to reject the new revelation as well. [He told them "the vision was of the Devil came from hel & would go there again" (Hearken, O Ye People, p.333).] The missionaries spent a few days with the branch. “Br Orson led in explination of the vision & other revelation followed by my self & Br Lyman,” wrote Murdock. Landen soon “acknowledged what we taught to be true.”
Joseph Smith sent the branch in Geneseo a letter admonishing them to have faith in the revelation. He warned, “[W]here there contentions, and unbelief in the sacred things communicated to the saints by revelation, that discord, hardness, jealousies, and numberless evils will inevitably insue.”
The prophet learned from this experience just how delicate the testimonies of many new converts could be and counseled missionaries to take a milk-before-meat approach to teaching gospel principles (1 Cor. 3:2). Prior to their departure to England, he urged the Twelve Apostles to “remain silent concerning the gathering, the vision, and the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, until such time as the work was fully established.” However, it proved difficult for some members to contain their enthusiasm for the new revelation.
Heber C. Kimball, echoing Joseph Smith’s counsel, encouraged his fellow missionaries to keep to the introductory principles of the gospel. Kimball had helped convert a minister, Timothy Matthews, in Bedford, England, and established an appointment for his baptism. But another elder, John Goodson, “contrary to my counsel and positive instructions, and without advising with any one, read to Mr. Matthews, the vision … which caused him to stumble.” Matthews failed to keep his appointment and never joined the Church.
While a few early Church members struggled to accept “the Vision,” many embraced it unreservedly. William W. Phelps, Church printer in Missouri, published it in the Church-owned The Evening and The Morning Star in July 1832 calling it “the greatest news ever published to man.”
Wilford Woodruff, an 1833 convert, recalled, “[I was taught from my childhood that there was one heaven and one hell, and was told that the wicked all had one punishment, and the righteous one glory.... I never did believe one word of this doctrine a day since I was born, and I am sure that I never did before.] When I read the vision … it enlightened my mind and gave me great joy. It appeared to me that the God who revealed that principle unto man was wise, just, and true—possessed both the best of attributes, and good sense, and knowledge. I felt He was consistent with both love, mercy, justice, and judgment; and I felt to love the Lord more than ever before in my life.”
Perhaps some of those who embraced “the Vision” were predisposed by their past beliefs. Some, like Joseph Smith’s father, may have had Universalist leanings. But while this new vision shared some similarities with the thought and writings of the Universalists, it departed from and expanded upon these ideas in new and inspired ways. Joseph Smith’s history concluded, “Nothing could be more pleasing to the Saint … than the light which burst upon the world, through the foregoing vision.… The sublimity of the ideas; the purity of the language; the scope for action; the continued duration for completion, in order that the heirs of salvation, may confess the Lord and bow the knee; The rewards for faithfulnes & the punishments for sins, are so much beyond the narrow mindedness of men, that every honest man is constrained to exclaim; It came from God.” (“The Vision,” Revelations in Context, history.lds.org)