by Joel McDonald
Earlier this month, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints came together for their annual General Conference. This year’s conference was unique, both in that it was only attended virtually due to efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19 and in that it was a celebration of it being 200 years since the First Vision, the inaugural event of the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the beginning of the end of what James E. Talmage describes in Jesus the Christ as the “long night of apostasy.”
I remember the first time I was told the story of Joseph Smith entering into a grove of trees to ask God which of all the churches was true. I was incredulous, to say the least. Surely nobody in their right mind would believe that Joseph received as an answer to his prayer a vision of both God the Father and Jesus Christ telling him that none of the churches were true and that all their teachings were an abomination. This kind of thing just didn’t happen.
A couple of years later, I found myself believing that yes, indeed, it did happen. The heavens had opened up in response to a young man’s prayer and the centuries-long absence of the fullness of the gospel began to be restored. I believed Joseph had a vision in the same way that Abraham was told not to sacrifice his son and Moses experienced the burning bush and acquired the commandments. I believed the restoration is required, as many truths were lost or altered since the time that Christ walked the earth.
While at the missionary training center, I made sure I was able to recite, word for word, the First Vision found in the Pearl of Great Price. As a missionary teaching others about the Church and the restoration of the gospel, it was always a sacred experience for me to share the First Vision. I believed that if the Spirit was going to testify of the truth of what we taught, it was when we shared the First Vision. For me, it was both an important moment in the history of the world and in the potential conversion of those we taught.
Why though was the night so long? Why was virtually all of Christianity left to wander in the darkness for over 1,700 years prior to the First Vision? Did God not care for or love those who lived and died in this period? Were they less worthy of the fullness of the gospel? Talmage writes that the restoration could not happen until after the “falling away” foretold by Paul, the preparation of mankind’s minds as seen in the Protestant Reformation, and the establishment of fertile ground where the restoration would be free to spread and the resulting church could grow as seen in the founding and framing of the United States. There was much required to happen to prepare for the restoration in order for it to be successful.
As LGBTQ+ people, it is easy to feel that we are now enduring our own long night. For many, we have an intense belief that we are as God has made us, but we’ve been labeled as outcasts, sinners, and sick by our society, including our church. For those who believe that Joseph indeed saw God the Father and Jesus Christ and seek to partake of the restored gospel, we are subject to the whims of those who have been called to lead the Church and must find a balance in living a full and fulfilling life without risking our relationship with and activity in the Church that we believe is important. While we’ve seen progress in an increased understanding, and maybe even empathy, of our reality, we’ve also seen decisions made by those entrusted to be inspired and Christlike leaders make callous decisions that feel anything but.
Even with efforts to make the Church a more welcoming place for LGBTQ+ members and visitors, we find ourselves sorely lacking in certainty where others find absolution. There are just too many unanswered questions about where exactly we fit into God’s plan and what our salvation looks like. I often wonder if those responsible for seeking these answers for the Church are asking God for them with the same unwavering faith encouraged by James and used by Joseph. I also wonder if God’s efforts to answer these questions are hindered by prejudice, dimming a glass that is already dark.
With this lack of answers comes the need for discussion and soul-searching. Much like the Protestant reformers, we have to wrestle with our faith. Sometimes that means setting a new course that is only slightly different. For others, their path may seem as though they’ve abandoned all they knew and believed before. This is why spaces like those Affirmation provides is so important. In the absence of clear answers, we must be able to explore the questions we have and support each other in that exploration, wherever it leads.
Much like the reformers, we must also make our presence, concerns, and questions are known. In recent years, we’ve seen church leaders at all levels realize that they need to at least speak to some of our questions. While there indeed continues to be condemnation espoused by church leaders, there has also been positive dialogue and discussion in recent years that would have been unimaginable a decade ago. We’re not alone in wrestling with our faith and what it means to be LGBTQ+. Perhaps this will lead to a greater preparation for what God may do in the continuing restoration of all things. Perhaps it’s our being more visible and this preparation that is required to happen before an affirming church is possible.
The world had to wait over 1,700 years for the heavens to open again, for Joseph Smith to experience the First Vision, and for the restoration of the gospel to begin. After such a long night, the sun began to rise. My hope is that one day, God’s LGBTQ+ children will be able to fully bask in its light.