A returned missionary related the following story to President Bateman (serving as his Stake President) during his release interview at the end of his mission:
As his mission began, Elder Stone worked energetically with his companion. Frequently he was called upon to give the first lesson. In the lesson it was necessary for him to tell the investigators about the appearance of the Father and the Son to the boy Joseph in the Sacred Grove and then bear witness of its truthfulness.
After bearing testimony a number of times, his conscience began to bother him. Although he believed the story, he did not know that it actually happened. He had not been there, nor had he received his own witness. How could he tell others that the First Vision really happened?
As doubts began to multiply and replace his belief and as the pains of conscience increased, he told his companion that he could no longer be a missionary. He was going home. He could not serve as a witness to something he did not know.
His companion responded, "Elder Stone, why don't you follow the counsel given the investigators? You need to study and pray more diligently. Put Moroni's promise to the test. Exercise your faith, and you will receive an answer. Stay with me for a few more weeks."
Elder Stone agreed to stay and put Moroni's promise to the test. A few weeks passed, the missionary worked harder, prayed more often, was more attentive in his reading, but no witness came. Finally, during an interview with the mission president, Elder Stone expressed his frustrations and indicated his desire to return home. He could not continue.
A wise mission president counseled, "Elder, do not give up! You have a desire to believe. If you continue faithful in your calling for a few more weeks, the Lord will answer your prayers. I promise you!"
Elder Stone agreed to return to his proselyting area for a few more weeks. Again, days and then weeks passed with no change in his feelings. It was difficult. One morning as they were knocking on doors, a woman answered and invited them to return when her husband and children would be home. As they left the small house, Elder Stone said to his companion, "I'm not giving the lesson!"
His companion responded, "Elder, I'll give the first portion of the discussion, but I want you to tell the Joseph Smith story."
Finally Elder Stone agreed, even though that was the part that bothered him. From the time they left the woman's house until they returned a day or two later, the missionary used every spare minute to read and pray.
He wanted a witness before entering the home. But when the appointed hour came, he still had not received a witness. He had read diligently, he had prayed almost continuously, but there were no special feelings. How could he bear witness when he did not know?
The father answered the door and ushered the missionaries inside. There on a dirt floor sat nine children, and the father and mother took their places behind them. Elder Stone reported that the size of the home was not much larger than his bedroom in Utah. The humble circumstances only added to his discomfort.
The senior companion began the lesson, telling the family that there is a God, that we are his children, and that he loves us. He then explained the mission of the Savior, how God sent his Son to earth to atone for our sins and to make possible our return to our heavenly home. He explained the role of prophets and bore witness that God works through prophets today. He then turned the lesson over to Elder Stone.
My missionary friend began the story of the 14-year-old Joseph. He told the family about the religious confusion that existed in Palmyra in the 1820's, how Joseph listened to the various ministers proclaiming different versions of Christianity. He told them about Joseph's experience in reading James 1:5, where James states unequivocally: "If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him."
The missionary related the impact that the passage had on Joseph—that it struck him with more power than had any other scripture, and that this caused him to reflect on it again and again. Finally, Joseph decided to put James to the test. He selected a grove of trees near his father's farm and went there on a beautiful spring day to pray. Being alone, he knelt down and offered up the feelings of his heart.
The elder told the family how a dark power came over Joseph, almost choking the life out of the young boy. Exerting all of his powers, Joseph continued to pray, and then, suddenly, a pillar of light descended out of the heavens directly above him. The darkness was dispelled, and in the midst of the light were two personages. One called Joseph by name and, pointing to the other, said: "This is My Beloved Son, Hear Him!"
At this point in the story, Elder Stone said that a warm feeling began to stir his soul—one he had never felt before. The warmth was deep inside and soon enveloped him. Tears welled up in his eyes. His throat became full, and he could hardly speak. He was embarrassed and ducked his head until he could regain his composure.
When he looked up, he noticed tears in the eyes of the parents and the children. They were experiencing the same feelings and warmth of Spirit that he was feeling. He finished the lesson with a conviction born of a spiritual witness that Joseph Smith saw the Father and the Son.
Elder Stone's testimony had shifted from one of belief to a knowledge of the First Vision. As Elder Stone finished sharing his experience with me, he said: "President, I know that Joseph saw the Father and the Son. I did not have a problem in the mission field after that experience. I have my own witness."
As I listened to the story's conclusion, I thought how efficient God is: he got 12 birds with one Stone! The parents, the nine children, and a missionary were all touched by the Holy Ghost, and a desire to believe was transformed into knowledge. More than that, God is efficient in another way. If a person has a witness of the Father and Son's visit to young Joseph, he or she has a foundation for believing and accepting other gospel principles.
…The important aspect of the story for us is the diligence required of Elder Stone. The answer did not come the first time he prayed or the second or the third. Weeks went by as his faith and desires were tested. As Moroni states: "Faith is things which are hoped for and not seen; wherefore, dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith" (Ether 12:6).
Brothers and sisters, do not get discouraged in your studies or with respect to your faith. Help will come, and you will master both secular and sacred truths if you are diligent and obedient in your efforts.