I was recently reading in The Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith — History regarding the events leading up to Joseph Smith’s First Vision. As Joseph told the story, he talked about his confusion over which church was correct in the things they taught. Or, he wondered, were they all wrong? Joseph said all the different “religionists” were “endeavoring to establish their own tenets and disprove all others” (1:9). He found himself in the midst of a “war of words and tumult of opinions” (1:10). He wrote,
“…unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know; for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible” (1:12).
Yet appeal to the Bible he did. Joseph said when he came across James 1:5,
“Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know,… At length I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion, or else I must do as James directs…So, in accordance with this, my determination to ask of God, I retired to the woods to make the attempt” (1:12-14).
Joseph had the idea that his spiritual questions could not be settled by an appeal to the Bible due to the propensity of men to interpret the text in different (incorrect) ways, but for some reason he believed he could correctly and adequately interpret James 1:5. It was Joseph’s personal interpretation of this verse from the Bible that sent him into the woods to ask God which church he should join.
But Joseph fell victim to his own fears. He did not correctly interpret James 1:5, and so he looked for his answers in the grove, rather than in God’s Word.
The context of James 1:5 places James’ instructions for seeking wisdom into a very specific situation. James wrote:
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:2-5).
Here James was writing to encourage Christians who were in the midst of suffering intense persecutions for their faith. Against all human wisdom, James told them they were to joyfully recognize their trials as beneficial to their faith. If they had trouble understanding how this could be, James said, they were to ask God for the wisdom to understand His plan in their suffering. Christian theologian John Calvin (1509-1564) commented on this passage:
“As our reason, and all our feelings are averse to the thought that we can be happy in the midst of evils, he bids us to ask the Lord to give us wisdom. For wisdom here, I confine to the subject of the passage, as though he had said, ‘If this doctrine is higher than what your minds can reach to, ask of the Lord to illuminate you by his Spirit; for as this consolation alone is sufficient to mitigate all the bitterness of evils, that what is grievous to the flesh is salutary to us; so we must necessarily be overcome with impatience, except we be sustained by this kind of comfort.’ Since we see that the Lord does not so require from us what is above our strength, but that he is ready to help us, provided we ask, let us, therefore, learn, whenever he commands anything, to ask of him the power to perform it” (Calvin’s Commentaries XXII::281-2).
Joseph Smith decided that the Bible could not provide answers to his questions. Though the Bible is the very Word of God, though God commands us to “Be diligent to present [ourselves] approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15), and though God confirms “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17), Joseph disregarded it all.
Having the form of godliness, Joseph did make “an appeal to the Bible.” He chose a verse, removed it from its context, and subsequently pursued a course not supported by scripture. Joseph sought answers apart from God’s revealed Word and in due time came to fulfill the woeful role of false prophet.